How did you praise your kids today? Did you say, “Good Job” or “Aren’t you a smart girl?” We tend to generously dole out praise for children as if it is the magic “super”-food that will help them develop a healthy self-esteem, and grow into succesful adults. But are our instincts and inclinations to liberally praise totally off the mark? Could our praise be having the opposite effect? According to new research, that is the case. Here are the lessons from NurtureShock on praise….
Chap. 1: The Inverse Power of Praise: Sure, he’s special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you’ll ruin him. It’s a neurobiological fact.
Lesson #1: As parents we should focus on effort, not on intelligence. This gives a child a variable that they can control instead of thinking, “I’m smart. I shouldn’t need to put forth effort.” This kind of thinking can lead kids to avoid risks and failure. (One mommy at our Meetup said she recalls avoiding a difficult college class even though she was very interested in the subject because she didn’t want to risk getting a sub-par grade that would ruin her “smart” image. A lot of us could relate.) Children who’s focus is on effort develop persistence and a healthy strategy for handling failure. These are the characteristics that will help them become succesful.
Lesson #2: Teach children and youth that intelligence can be developed! The brain is a muscle: a harder workout makes you smarter. In a study, the children who were taught this basic neurobiological fact began to work harder and do better in school, shedding whatever “labels” they had overtly or intuitively received from teachers, parents, and other students over the years.
Lesson #3: There is power in 1 comment: “You must have worked really hard.” In a study, the children who were told this after an easier test, subsequently worked harder and did better on a more challenging test. Those who were told they did well and must be smart, gave up quicker and did more poorly on the 2nd test.
Lesson #4: Children see through us. Only children under 7 take praise at face value, by age 12 children believe earning praise from a teacher is a sign that you lack ability, and therefore need extra encouragement.
Lesson #5: Excessive praise distorts children’s motivation; they begin doing things for the praise, not for the intrinsic value. Not for the learning, not for the sense of personal accomplishment and pride. Surely unhealthy praise and pressure are a common and dangerous duo.
Lesson #6: Effective Praise is specific, sincere, not too much. Not only does the specific praise go along with language development with your little ones, but it also ties in with one of my favorite parenting mantras, “What you focus on, you get more of. (my post). It also goes along with the concept of noticing your children. See more on this life/ parenting philosophy in my post, “Children just want to be seen and heard.”
This week, give these phrases a try with your kids. (It takes practice not to say, “Good job” all the time.)
- “You’re doing it! You’re ____________!” (fill in the blank: crawling to Daddy, putting your dishes away, getting dressed all by yourself.) This is my top praise pick of all time as you can witness it’s motivating powers instantly. After I shared this at our Meetup group the other night, one mom told me she tried it with her baby the next day as she was beginning to walk across the room, and she said her face just lit up!
- “I notice ____________ (another fill in the blank for the specific behavior you want to draw attention to because you want more of it and/ or because you just want to validate your child: “…you drew lots of red at the top of the page”, “…you put on your blue and your purple sock.”
- “You really know how to_________.” (…toss a salad, show your love to the baby, tie your shoes, bounce a ball.)
- “I like how you keep trying.”
- “You’re doing your best!”
- “I see you figuring it out.” or “Your brain worked hard, and you figured it out!”
- “I can tell you are really thinking about it.”
- “Way to solve that problem!”
- “You are such a thinker!”
- “What a hard worker!”
- “You must have worked really hard on that.” or “You are working really hard on that.”
- “You worked really hard on this project. What was the most interesting thing you learned?”
- “You worked really hard to get this grade. What is your favorite thing you learned?
So, in conclusion, I will continue to tell my children every now and then (sometimes every day) that they are special, and special to me. (As in Mr. Rogers’ great song“You Are Special”) But I will also say, “Michael James, I think it is so special the way you care for your sister by singing to her at night.” I will still use my favorite “I Love You” ritual rhyme with them, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, What a Wonderful Child You Are.”, but I will also say, “Ellie, it’s wonderful the way you are cooperating in the grocery cart. What a helpful girl!” I still am moved by the words that the character Abilene shares with Mae Mobley each day as her black nanny in “The Help”: “You smart. You good. You important.”, and I still think every child needs some grown-up in their lives to instill in them these messages. (See my post “Lessons from The Help”)
Like any aspect of parenting, I think it’s important to pause and reflect, consider the facts, consider your intentions, and create a strategy for being intentional. My parents certainly praised me, as did teachers along the way. This certainly shaped and motivated me, but somewhere along the way I developed a strong work ethic and drive to achieve for myself, not for anyone else. Perhaps the secret to success lies in a balance of praise and freedom: freedom to risk, freedom to fail, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to grow in challenge. And, in the end, I hope my children leave my nest with a strong sense of self-worth and esteem partly shaped by the messages I give them, but mostly based on the messages they learn to give themselves.