Think before you praise

“Good job, Sasha!” enthused a fellow mother at the park as she tailed her preschool-aged daughter up and down the slides. “Great climbing! I’m so proud of you, strong girl!” 

This was one of the more effusive examples of “positive reinforcement” I’ve witnessed since becoming a parent. 

But if you spend any time at playgrounds or other kid-friendly spots, I’m sure you’ve noticed this almost aggressive culture of praise — maybe you’ve even taken part in it yourself. 

Of course, it’s understandable. What parent doesn’t delight in her child’s burgeoning skills? When your daughter does something new or impressive — learns to tie her shoes, produces a detailed painting, shares her dessert with a friend — it’s only natural to want to celebrate a little.

Right?

The dark side of praise 

But praise is a tricky thing.

Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, in their book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, outline some of the problems with praise. 

For example, they point out that praise is often conditional. 

“Because children most frequently receive praise for things they ‘do’ or ‘make’ rather than just for being themselves, they can end up wondering if they’re OK when they are not ‘producing’ or ‘achieving.’” 

‘You’re so smart!’ 

OK, so it’s important to love your children for who they are — and who they are is a super smart kid, right? 

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. The basic theory is that telling your child he’s smart will boost his self-esteem, thus promoting confidence as he takes on new academic challenges. 

However, recent research suggests that the opposite might be true: Vigorously labeling your child as “smart” can actually encourage him or her to underperform academically.

Bursting the bubble of every intelligence-praising parent is Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology, who led a 10-year study on the effect of praise on students in 20 New York schools. 

One exercise in the study began with nonverbal IQ tests of fifth-grade students involving a series of fairly easy puzzles. 

When each child finished the test, he or she learned the score and was given one line of praise. Some were praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at this.” 

Others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked very hard.” 

For the next round of testing, the students were given a choice. One option was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the children were told they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other test was easy, just like the first one. 

The results? Of those praised for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. In other words, the “smart” kids took the cop-out. 

Dweck addresses these results in her study summary: “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” 

Acknowledge or ask  

So, you might be asking yourself: What can I say to my child that won’t ruin her for life? 

Davis and Keyser recommend simple acknowledgement: “Acknowledgement is a way to respond to children that is descriptive and nonjudgmental, yet it lets you convey your feelings.” 

For example, they suggest you “share your observations” and “use descriptive language” to avoid the pitfalls of evaluation. 

You can also ask questions. Instead of exclaiming, “What a beautiful painting!” you can instead say, “Tell me about your painting.” 

“Encouraging children to talk about themselves and what they are doing is one of the most powerful kinds of acknowledgement we can give,” Davis and Keyser wrote. 


Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.