The Positive and Negative Powers of Praise

Why is it that some children who are very smart lack confidence about their abilities in school? According to a recent article in New York Magazine titled How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise, a large percentage of gifted students severely underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

The vast majority of parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart, but a growing body of evidence strongly suggests that labeling kids as “smart” may actually cause under-performance.

Carol Dweck, formerly from Columbia and now at Stanford, has spent the last 10 years studying the effect of praise on students in New York schools. She found that, when given a choice, students who were praised for their intelligence chose easier work so that they could still look smart; they didn’t want to risk making mistakes. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their effort chose harder work.

In a subsequent round, when all students were given a very difficult task, there was also a difference between the two groups. Those who had been praised for effort got very involved and were willing to try all the solutions to the puzzles, many remarking that “This was my favorite test.” Those who had been praised for their intelligence had a different reaction. They found the test to be very stressful.

Dweck concluded that emphasizing effort gives a child something they can control.

In follow-up interviews, it was found that those who think that innate intelligence is the most important ingredient of success feel that they do not need to put out effort. Dweck found that this effect of praise held true for students of every socioeconomic class, and was especially true of the very brightest girls.

To be effective, researchers have found that praise needs to be both sincere and specific (i.e., I like how you keep trying, or you listened well to instructions, or you concentrated for a long time without taking a break, or your free throws during the basketball game were very good).
Students must have a strategy for handling failure. The lack of this strategy is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better the next time. This may cause the child to believe that failure is so terrible that the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them. Dweck wants students to believe that the way to bounce back from failure is to work harder. By developing this trait of persistence, students are able to sustain motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. If one is rewarded too much, they’ll learn to quit when those rewards disappear.

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