So I came across this potentially life-changing article by Po Bronson, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise”. I think it makes a couple of points that I will try to paraphrase, but Mr Bronson probably makes those points better, so I’ll insert some quotes as well.
1. Children who hear constantly that they are smart tend to associate effort with a negative connotation. Adults typically praise children as for their intelligence because they did something easily – they solved a puzzle quickly, or they finished their homework before dinner, not because they spent a lot of time fixing a jigsaw. This conditions them to see praise as instant gratification – and if they don’t get praised upon an initial expense of effort, they give up. This in turn can lead to a lack of confidence in their competence, and a tendency to give up quickly or not persevere when gratification/success is delayed, and even risk aversion and being overly concerned about how one is perceived by others.
This passage from Mr Bronson’s article about a series of research is especially telling:
For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.
Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.
Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
2. Self-esteem was purported to be the most important part of a person by influential author Nathaniel Branden, and praise became a tool for educators and parents everywhere to motivate children. But it appears praise is essentially a blunt tool and needs to be sharpened by other factors. For it to be effective in helping children improve, praise should be (i) specific and behaviour-based (“I liked how you gave up your seat to that old lady”, not “That was very courteous”; “It’s great how you stayed focus all the way through that homework”, rather than “Good work”) and (ii) sincere. As Mr Bronson puts it,
Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.
Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.
Mr Bronson also commented that praise – general, social sort of praise – has become the modern working parent’s way of “being there” for his/her child – a sort of verbal “angel on the shoulder”. I think that’s really pinpoint accurate and very well put.