Praising Your Child Doesn't Help Them Succeed If You Do It Wrong
As a parent what do you want for your children? Having a roof over their heads and food on the table are obvious places to start. Providing them with a quality education? Absolutely. How about setting up a college fund? That’s never a bad idea. Allowing them to pursue their dreams and passions? Definitely.
For me, the top priority is that my child become a successful adult. The reason? I could provide my child with the best education and make sure she doesn’t have to worry about college tuition. But that’s not going to give her an edge if she doesn’t understand the importance of hard work, social skills, strong relationships and not being worried if the fail.
Those are all lessons children can apply to both their personal and professional lives.
While assigning them chores, getting them excited about education and improving their emotional intelligence all improve their chances of being successful, science has found for years that praise is one of the best ways to make this a reality.
As Betsy Mikel, the owner of Aveck, states perfectly in an article, “On one hand, there's a body of evidence that supports the theory that praising your children is good. Studies have found that it helps to motivate, build self-confidence and develop social skills.”
For instance, several studies have discovered that moms who praise their preschoolers for their good manners will have children with better social skills.
“Yet other data points to negative effects of praising your kids, leading to lower levels of motivation, lower performance and shying away from challenges,” adds Mikel.
In fact, there’s research that has discovered that praising your children on innate abilities, such as their intelligence, will actually make it less likely that they'll grow up enjoying learning and wanting to excel. With all of these mixed signals, what’s a parent to do?
Should you praise your kids or not? There’s no denying that praising your children can be beneficial. It’s all about doing so correctly.
Praise the process, not the individual.
Researcher and professor of psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck is known for her work on the mindset psychological trait which explains:
- Why brains and talent don’t bring success
- How they can stand in the way of it
- Why praising brains and talent doesn’t foster self-esteem and accomplishment, but jeopardizes them
- How teaching a simple idea about the brain raises grades and productivity
- What all great CEOs, parents, teachers, athletes know
According to Dweck, "in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success -- without effort. They’re wrong.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work -- brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”
Dweck took this concept and followed 373 middle school students during seventh and eighth grades, and identified the students who exhibited fixed mindsets and the students who exhibited growth mindsets.
"By the end of the first term, their grades jumped apart and continued to diverge over the next two years. The only thing that differed was their mindsets," said Dweck. As expected, those who exhibited growth mindsets achieved more than their peers with fixed mindsets.
This is because students with a fixed mindset would only work on tasks that they knew they could solve so that they could look smart at all times. Those with a fixed mindset challenged themselves, even if they were wrong because it was still a learning opportunity.
When it came it to failure, fixed mindset students believed it was because they didn’t have the innate ability, while growth mindset students saw the effort as the chance to unlock the ability.
And, those with a fixed mindset were likely to complain of being bored in school, while those with a growth mindset viewed schoolwork as a series of challenges and puzzles that they had to figure out.
Where does praise come into the picture here? Angie Aker writes, “Praise your child explicitly for how capable they are of learning rather than telling them how smart they are.”
Here’s an example:
FIXED MINDSET: "You read that sentence in the book — you are so smart!"
GROWTH MINDSET: "You read that sentence in the book — you worked so hard to learn how to do that and now you can! Congratulations!"
Be sincere and genuine.
Throughout a series of experiments, psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer discovered that children under the age of 7 will accept praise at face value. Once they reach the age of 12, they become more suspicious of this type of praise. In fact, children believe that there’s a hidden agenda behind the praise because at this point they’re able to recognize if they’ve done a good job or not.
Furthermore, Myer’s work found that children believed that their teachers were offering praise to them because they lacked the ability and were in need of some extra encouragement. They even noticed a pattern. The kids who were falling behind received the most praise, yet these children believed that their teacher’s criticism was a better indicator of their performance than praise.
When offering praise, make sure that it’s sincere and genuine. For instance, if your child asks you to check-out a drawing they just completed while you’re busy cooking dinner or working, you may say, “That’s a great picture.” That’s not just insincere. It’s a cue that you don’t want to be bothered and want them to go away.
Instead, you could ask them, “What do we have here? I see you’ve come a long way in drawing people, but faces are still giving you some trouble. Do you want to work on that after dinner?”
Give credit when credit is due.
A study from South Korea surveyed 300 children and their parents. The kids were screened for symptoms of depression and asked how often their parents over-praised or under-praised for their homework, test scores and grades. The parents were asked similar questions regarding how they praised their children.
The study found that children performed best when parents gave them praise that they had truly earned. The study's authors said praise "perceived to be based on actual performance yields the most desirable outcomes for children."
The researchers concluded: “We demonstrated that when parents perceived that they over- or under-praised their children for schoolwork, children performed worse in school and experienced depression to a greater extent, as compared with children whose parents thought their praise accurately reflected reality.”
Stop praising your children altogether.
Children lose interest in activities quickly. Sometimes they’re only interested in painting or piano lessons because you dangled a carrot in front of them - in this case, the carrot was your praise. After awhile, they become immune to that praise and move on if they’re not interested.
In an interesting study, researcher Joan Grusec, found that 8-to-9-year-olds who were frequently praised for their generosity began to act less generous on an everyday basis than compared to other children. In fact, whenever these children heard statements like “I’m so proud of you for helping,” or “Great sharing!” they became less interested in helping or sharing.
Instead of praising your children, observe and comment, like the above example of the drawing. You’re not judging or criticizing them. But, you’re also not giving them general praise. You’re offering feedback that they can use the next time around.
Praise is a good thing for your children when done correctly. This means encouraging a growth mindset, being authentic, only offering praise when it’s deserved and providing feedback instead when it is not.
When you do praise your children, keep the following pointers in mind:
- Be descriptive and specific. For example, “Thank you for picking up your toys without waiting for me having to ask.”
- Limit general praise and focus on effort. Skip, “You were so good at the restaurant,” and say “Thank you for staying in your seat at the restaurant. That took a lot of effort.”
- Don’t be sarcastic. It’s not humorous to your children and will discount the praise that you did provide.
- Learn when to praise. It should be immediately following an accomplishment. But, don’t over-praise your child. Limit it to when they do something exceptional.