For most parents in Western society today, they can’t imagine not telling their child that they are “smart”, “beautiful”, “a great runner/pianist/swimmer/whatever”; in short, they can’t imagine not praising the abilities their children show. If you suggest to parents not to do this, they worry their child will grow up feeling unloved and feeling the opposite of these things: worthless, ugly, no good at anything. Is this true?
Let me answer with an emphatic “No”. In fact, in many countries, like Japan, parenting doesn’t include the degree of praise that we have here. Although we may believe this act of praise to be universal, it is not. And there seems to be good reason.
“How can praise not be good?”
According to research from Stanford University by Dr. Carol Dweck, we may be doing them more harm than good by offering this type of praise. Over years of experiments, Dweck has shown that children develop what she has terms a “fixed mindset” about themselves when they are faced with “person” praise. What does this mean? It means when children are praised for their abilities or traits seen as inherent in the person – “you are smart”, “you are beautiful” – they develop a mindset that sees these traits as unchangeable. Wouldn’t this be good? Don’t you want your child to have this?
The problem with the fixed mindset comes when children (and adults) face a situation in which they don’t immediately meet the outcome that would be associated with that ability or trait. In the classic praise framework, a child is told that he or she is “smart” after solving a problem. Then more problems, harder problems, are presented. Children who are told they must be “smart” immediately cease trying to solve the harder problems. More than that, when given the opportunity to work on something, they steer clear of the problems they struggled with. This tells us that children, in an effort to maintain the image of being “smart”, are avoiding situations or experiences that challenge that. And that is not a good thing if we want our children to succeed.
Dweck and colleagues have also seen the same effect with criticism, with children who received person criticism to tasks (in this case it was “I’m very disappointed in you”) showing helplessness in later tasks tapping similar abilities relative to children who received other feedback or no feedback at all. Children, in essence, internalize the failure as being about them and fail to think that they are capable of growth. Similar effects are found in classrooms where teachers have tried to comfort struggling students with comments like “Not everyone can be good at math”. Although this does comfort students, it also decreases their motivation to learn and try to improve in a given area; they have an out that tells them no matter what they do, they will not succeed, so why try?
“But I need to praise my child! I can’t not!”
This is where Dweck’s work makes an important distinction: The difference between person, or ability, praise and process praise. Process praise is where we offer praise to a child (or adult) based on the effort they have done or how they have approached a problem or situation. When children are given this type of praise – “I can see you worked really hard!” – they often embrace harder challenges, rising to the task of completing them. The motivating factor is that they are made aware that their effort pays off. The children are able to see that their work is what gave them the result, not some innate talent or ability, and thus they realize that more work can equal more gains. Compare this to the child who believes that it is inherent and no amount of work will change one’s ability, we see the different mindsets at play. Compared to the “fixed” mindset of the child who is given person praise, the mindset of the child who receives process praise is a “growth” mindset because it fosters the notion of growing and learning and being able to tackle various problems and situations.
When criticism is directed at the process – “That way doesn’t work but maybe you could think of another way” – children again rise to the occasion. They no longer see the failure as being about them but rather about the way they approached the situation or problem and were reinforced with the idea that they can find another way.
Often this is what we are trying to achieve as parents and yet we struggle to break free from a society that is fixated on praise to build up self-esteem. Why? Well, when researchers started looking at the effect of adult-feedback on child performance, they found that person praise really did help build them up and contributed to positive outcomes in terms of self-esteem and performance (e.g.,). The problem was that these researchers focused exclusively on the effects when the individual was successful. They did not consider that the effect of praise may be different when the child faced a setback or a difficulty. Therefore, for person praise to be effective long-term, our children need to face no setbacks. Not something that is likely or even desired in our society as many of us view setbacks as the path to growth.
“But I’ve been praising my child already! What do I do?”
One of the things we learn in psychology and development is that very few mindsets can never be changed provided the input changes. The issue becomes that it becomes much harder to change mindsets as we get older. People become resistant to change and it therefore requires far more work to change the mindset of a teen than a child and far more work to change the mindset of a child than a preschooler. I will admit that my own personal story could read as a textbook case for person praise. I was consistently told I was smart (which I was, though questionable how much has remained) and in turn whenever I met a subject that I struggled with, I gave up entirely. I simply couldn’t face not being “smart” so I hid from it. It wasn’t until I was well into graduate school that I learned to accept the challenge and work to developing a growth mindset. It’s something I still struggle with, but it gets easier with time and when I can see the effects of the efforts I’m putting in, my growth mindset grows just a little bit more while my fixed mindset changes.
Now, if you are the parent of a child between the ages of 1 and 3 and you find yourself saying these things, I have even better news. Not only is it easiest to change things with younger children, but research by Dweck and colleagues out very recently has shown us that at this age, the person praise has no long-term negative consequences. That is, the parent praise for ability or traits was not associated with a fixed mindset at ages 7-8. Perhaps even more importantly, though, praise for effort was associated with a growth mindset at ages 7-8, suggesting that the early use of process praise may have a causal effect on the type of mindset a child can develop. In fact, it seems to be the ideal situation: We as parents cannot mess up our child’s mindset early on, but we can help it.
What to do? Well, ideally we would all strive to leave our praise for processes only, but in a culture that is still immersed in the person praise as something we must do, that becomes incredibly difficult. My own take is that some person praise isn’t going to hurt provided most of the praise a child receives is process-driven. I do think we owe it to our children to use this younger window to work on reducing or removing our person praise to focus on the positive effects of process praise, as hard as that might be. In the long-term, it’s much more aligned with what we want for our children.
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