Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The inverse power of praise

Here's an interesting article from the February 19 issue of New York magazine. It is long but fascinating.

It seems praising our kids too much can backfire. In a study of fifth graders in New York, children were divided into two groups and asked to solve puzzles: one group was praised for their intelligence; the other for their efforts.

When the puzzles got too hard, the "smart" kids gave up; the kids praised for their efforts assumed they just needed to work harder.
[Study author Carol] 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.”
The article goes on to note others in the academic world challenging the "self-esteem movement" that started back in 1969.
[One review of praise studies] determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Another study showed how well children can smell a rat:
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.
Praise is needed, of course. That's a given - we all need this form of encouragement. But not slathered, meaningless repetition of, "You're the best."

The key is intermittent praise - focused, specific, and sincere:
“The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
I thought this was an interesting comment:

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise.
This article gave me lots to think about. As a child, I always thought I was smart (don't know if this is related to praise or not). While it gave me a certain amount of internal confidence, in practice, especially when I was a teen, I tended not to pursue anything that did not come easily to me; anything that required more than minimal effort. Even though I accomplished goals, I consistently chose the safest route that had little risk of failure. I have had to work very hard to overcome this persistent pattern, well into my adult life. (Because what, pray tell, does not require lots of effort in adult life? In marriage? In parenting?). The real world of hard work was more of a shock than it had to be.

(But alas, I lived to tell the story, and - wouldn't you know - I married someone who has NO risk aversion! I guess it all came out in the wash!)

As a parent, I've been guilty of offering blanket praises to my kids, instead of taking time to think it through: giving them the sincere, specific praise for their effort, or even the constructive criticism (an "evil" word these days!) they need to improve. Hmm.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this!

18 comments:

Code Yellow Mom said...

Growing up in a home where praise was mostly given in backhanded compliments if at all, I've really tried to lavish praise and positive reinforcement that is clear and enrouraging for my kids. My one rule is sincerity, because it so true that "kids smell a rat."

One distinction I really like in this commentary on praise is the idea of celebrating persistence, desire, and endurance (effort) as opposed to emphasizing the inherent qualities like IQ or physical abilities that may or may not be a result of work and practice on the part of the child (or their parent). I'm guilty of saying often, "You're so smart!" for example, when it might be a lot better to say, "You think things through so well," or, "I can tell you really thought about that!"

I know in my life, I heard, "You are smart. You are creative." But I never heard, "You are fast," or, "You are athletic." So guess what things I was more likely to pursue? Not sports, for sure. And looking back, I see that it's not because I couldn't have developed the abilities to succeed physically - it just wasn't what others told me I was good at. The thought struck me that maybe if kids hear more things like, "You are capable. You can do anything you stick to long enough," they will venture out and truly achieve things that they might not otherwise have tried. Plus, they will not quit when it gets tough, which leads to a whole new level of confidence and strength, when they know they really did something hard and saw it through to the end, and no one will have to praise them because they will have that marvelous feeling of personal success that no words can really give.

Kara said...

Very interesting. I'll have to think on it a bit, but it makes sense.

Granny said...

GREAT article, great post, Katherine. I'm thinking about blogging on this one myself...and I'll sure link to your post.

I've never hesitated to call my kids' attention to their strong points, as in saying "You're very smart," but I don't do this in conjunction with praise for a particular accomplishment. I want my daughter to know she's musically talented, or my son to know he has a gift for language, but that's not praise. Praise is when I say, "Great job on learning that difficult piece. I particularly like the way you've adjusted the dynamics to give the feeling of building toward the climax!" I want my children to know that I recognize their different strengths, but I try to separate that part of educating them from my specific praise for their *accomplishments* within those strengths (or accomplishments within an area of weakness, for that matter.)

Kelli in the Mirror said...

I love this article. Lots of thinking to do.

One thing that I've changed with my preschooler since my sister finished her Montessori training is saying, "You must be so proud of yourself!" instead of "I'm so proud of you." It puts it back in her corner and gives her control of it.

Babystepper said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I'm struggling to overcome my own reactions to childhood praise. My parents were great, but it was always, "You should be doing a lot better. You're too smart to make bad grades in penmanship." "Our family just isn't athletic." I'd like to figure out how to give my kids the same work ethic my husband has. I don't want to let them think that it's okay to be bad at math, because Mommy was, or that they have to be great at English, because Mommy was. Tough calls ahead.

Katherine@Raising Five said...

Wow, Babystepper - you bring up such great point. I think giving a sincere compliment (praise) and refraining from the tendency to add a caveat ("You did a great job on that, BUT...") is absolutely crucial.

Kids "smell a rat" when they figure out some people use praise as a way of preceding or hiding criticism, and it can be hurtful long afterward.

Kili @ Live Each Moment said...

what a great article....

Beck said...

That IS interesting. I think I'm too lavish with the priase - my kids are THE smartest, THE cutest, and so on. Maybe I should start praising, you know, actual achievements from now on... hm.

Ivey Elizabeth Sirmans said...

I think this is just as it is with most things - a balance is needed. As a teacher of teenagers, I got more out of my students when I taught to the top end of the class, all the while pushing the lower and middle end. One groups was reaching their potential; one group was being challenged; one group was driving hard to catch up. balanced and sincere.

marian said...

Great post. Thank you.

I'm really trying to find the balance to walk this line right now with my special needs son who's homeschooling. His self-esteem has been truly shot, in the genuine ways that matter (even down to the will to live)and he is very fragile in both his emotions and abilities at this point. When I go over the line in pushing him, the results are very scary. So often I just stay way back from that line... And yet I know that the only way he is going to build a genuine, healthy "self-esteem" is to actually know and feel that he has truly accomplished something difficult...

It's quite a balancing act that seemingly takes more finesse than I have while simultaneously dealing with the younger siblings. Two and three year olds, especially, are not so helpful. Ahem. (Hard day =) ).

Rachel Anne said...

What a great article, Katherine. Thanks for posting it...it is one for the "keeper" file.

Heather said...

As a former teacher trained during the beginning of the "praise and self-esteem" era, seeing the results in the classroom and determining to use "real" praise of effort and attitude instead of "empty praise" in our homeschooling I heartily agree, in fact noticed it myself when I was teaching. It also helps to fgocuds on things they can change and not things they can't. If you praise looks, natural talent, or even grades then as they grow and run into issues in which their natural abilitiies or relationships (because often grades depend partly on the student teacher relationship)then it causes them to doubt instead of focus on doing their best. Praising effort, moral accomplishments, and attitude helps to provoke future efforts in those areas.

Andrea said...

Katherine~
I did not read the article, but your post is making me want to be more aware of praising effort, risk, and perserverance, more than "blanket praise" (although "blanket praise" is all-right--I think it's fine for a father to tell his daughter she is "beautiful", "thoughtful" because they need that assurance from their fathers/men.)
Katherine, I am so like you in the regard that when I became a wife and mother, I realized that I couldn't "quit" when it was hard and that nothing would get me out of it. When it comes to my preteen, I want to look for ways in which she *can* fail (so un-PC) so that she can see that she can get back up again. I hope for those circmstances, anyway. I might post more on this and link you later in the week. Great post.

Elise said...

What is heard in our home more than anything else: I know you can do it!
Kind of covers it all, but I'm sure I could say more...
This is a great post - I sent it to a friend who is struggling with encouragement in her home. Thanks!

Terri said...

This is a great blog ... I love this kind of info!

Lara H said...

I have been wondering why girls, and young women, these days especially, seem to inflect their voice as if every sentence is a question, when really they are stating an opinion or thought about something. This article gave me at least one reason why this may be the case. What I wonder is why it is more often girls than boys that do this. I wonder if the study noticed this gender difference.

Joy said...

I read this article last week and I've been thinking about ever since and really paying attention to how I praise the kids. I can remember being really annoyed with my MIL when she would say "you're so smart!" to the kids. It begged me but I couldn't figure out why until I read this article. Now I notice myself saying the same thing though.

Another thing I do notice is all my comments on their physical characteristics, like how I always say "CUTE" about all of them. Seems that some of that is OK but too much puts too much emphasis on their physical qualities? I don't know. Still figuring it out. But very thought provoking.

Mama Bear June said...

One other important point. If you constantly praise your child for how "beautiful" or "athletic" they are, what happens if there's a tragedy and they no longer have that? Will they consider themselves worthless or think you won't love them anymore? CHARACTER is what counts. Our children need to know how very much we love them because of who they are, not what they can DO. :-)