Praise has become the most commonly cited tool in the toolbox for Parenting 101. From toilet training accessories that chime “you’re so great, you’re a star” to monogrammed reward charts modern parents are pretty creative when it comes to finding ways to praise and reward their kids for just about anything.
Concerned about your child’s confidence, motivation, self-esteem, or NAPLAN performance? Our culture sees praise is seen as the sure-fire way to increase kids motivation to do just about any worthwhile activity. And if the praise doesn’t work- parents can rest in the belief that because it’s nice- it surely can’t do any harm? Right?
While its true that carefully applied praise and encouragement can make the world of difference to a child facing a difficult challenge- the type of praise we give our kids matters immensely.
Carol Dweck, an American psychologist has been researching praise and educational outcomes for over 45 years. Her research identifies two types of praise and explores the links with persistence, perseverance and creative problem solving.
She says praise that focuses on traits such as intelligence and talent creates hidden obstacles to life long learning. “Praising students’ intelligence gives them a short burst of pride,” says Dweck, “followed by a long string of negative consequences.”
When kids are praised with classic ‘smart kid praise’ such as “I knew you could do it, aren’t you clever” they don’t go on to face challenges with more confidence, perseverance or motivation. Instead the ‘smart’ identity creates an obstacle to persistence and creative problem solving.
When kids are praised for qualities they see as fairly fixed- such as intelligence, sporting prowess, or musicality they also internalise the understanding that being smart means you should expect to do things easily. If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not. While these kids might perform ok when things are comfortable- when they are faced with something new, or competition they aren’t used to- the smart label comes back to bite them.
Instead of bringing confidence and creativity to new challenges, kids praised for being smart were more likely to avoid learning situations that they fear could be hard for them. Dweck found that kids in this situation put more of their energy into keeping up the appearance of being smart- and less energy into persevering, applying creative strategies or problem solving. As a group, the kids who had been praised for being smart lost confidence and enjoyment as a task became challenging. In fact, when kids had recently received praise for their intelligence they feared being found out so much that they were more likely to lie about their results.
So what’s the alternative? How can we use praise to be a helpful and effective motivator for kids?
Dweck identifies a second type of praise that is much more effective at enhancing learning and motivation. Process praise tells students what they’ve done to be successful and helps them draw the links with what they need to do to be successful again in the future.
Process praise focuses in on the particular strategies or qualities the child applied to succeed at a problem. It might sound like “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it” or “You really studied for your English test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. That really worked!”
Kids in Dweck’s research who were praised for their process of learning developed a ‘growth mindset’ instead of a ‘fixed mindset. This shift allowed them to see challenges as things that could be overcome with effort and utilising a range of strategies. In this mindset kids aren’t satisfied with just ‘learning in order to get good results’ but experience learning as a life-long process and improvement as something they can always attain if they are willing to participate in the struggle.
Two tips for praise with a growth mindset:
- Demonstrate a growth mindset by talking to your kids about your own history of learning and improvement. Tell your kids about the skills or competencies you have had to work to improve and how you did. Identify with them as they experience the struggle involved in deliberate learning.
- Praise the process not just the result. Reflect back to your child that you noticed them using special perseverance, creativity, problem solving or planning to achieve a goal.
Here are two web resources for considering effective praise.
Good material for thinking through helpful praise at different developmental stages.
A wider perspective on praise and motivation.
by Kristen Bayliss
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre