Is praising your child really helping them?

Do you praise your child all the time?

You are so clever.
I was so proud when you kicked that goal.
That painting is amazing.
You were the best singer on the stage tonight.
You are a natural!

Since the emergence of modern psychology in the late seventies, we have been encouraged to praise our children, to build their self esteem and confidence, believing that this will increase their chances of being successful adults.

We certainly know from experience that doing the opposite, constantly criticizing and setting unrealistic expectations, can destroy confidence and motivation.

But is constantly praising your child really helping them grow and succeed? Are we giving our children too much praise?

If used too much, praise can become ineffective.
⦁ When children are constantly praised they can come to expect it every        time they do something.
⦁ When children are told that everything they do is amazing, they will           never understand the idea of learning and improving.
⦁ Children can become addicted to praise and will tend to give up on             things too easily when they find them to be difficult
⦁ Constant praise can give a child unrealistic beliefs about their own             abilities and they can struggle with real life experiences like not getting     an A or missing out on team selection.
⦁ A child who is constantly praised will come to believe that only ‘dumb’       kids need to make an effort, and can lack motivation

Carol Dweck is a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University who has recently conducted some interesting research which has addressed this issue of praise.

Contrary to popular belief, praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better                                                                                                    Carol Dweck

In her research she discovered that children who are constantly praised for their intelligence, actually perform significantly less well than those who are encouraged for their efforts.
When faced with a difficult challenge, children who get too much praise take less risks, are more likely to give up and are very sensitive to any constructive feedback.

For a brief summary of her research, check out this video

Simply put, the kids who were told that they were intelligent believed that they could do well without any effort, but avoided tasks that might not earn them success and praise, or have people think less of them.

But those who had their efforts acknowledged felt encouraged to continue to try harder, finding the challenge interesting and rewarding in itself.

Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are,” Dweck says. “They are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to learn.”

So what does all this mean for parents and teachers?
Building confidence and self-esteem is still important, but to promote resilience in children we should focus on encouragement rather than praise.

Don’t get me wrong! Praise is okay if it is realistic and deserved. But even the child who scores the goal or earns the A grade in Maths can be better supported by acknowledging their efforts and encouraging them to take on new challenges or extend themselves beyond their compfort zone.

In their article Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids by Murphy and Allen, the authors suggest that parents and teachers should not be afraid to withhold praise. If praise is used it should more specific, such as focusing on the effort they made, the problem-solving strategies they used and their determination and willingness to take risks and make mistakes.

“For instance, next time your son gets an A on an exam for which you know he hardly studied, tell him you think he should try a tougher class next semester. When he scores the winning touchdown, instead of telling him he’s the best player on the team, ask him how he trained to run so fast.
The flip side is that parents must be honest when their children do not perform as well as their peers. If your daughter finishes last at the track meet, and you know it is because she’s younger and less experienced than other competitors, it is better to tell her that she did not deserve to win because she still needs improvement than to tell her you thought she was the best, no matter what the judges said.”

So what does encouragement look like?
While praise focuses on the outcome or result, encouragement focuses on the journey the child undertook.

How much effort did they make?
Did they get involved?
Did they experiment and try new things?
Were they enjoying the challenge?
Did they perservere when things got hard?
Were they organised?
Did they have a plan of attack?

Positive, realistic feedback is important. Do not tell a child something is wonderful if it is not. Start with the positives, but ask them to tell you the things that they could improve next time. Reinforce the importance of making mistakes in the learning process – that they are to be embraced, not feared and avoided.

Encouraging parents do not worry if their child gets a little anxious when trying something new. Instead they model their belief that the child will cope. They still have expectations but focus on the importance of the journey, rather than the final outcome. Let’s be honest – not everyone is going to become the next Picasso, Usain Bolt or Stephen Hawkins.

So here are my five simple (but vital) tips for parents and teachers.
1. Listen to your kids but allay their fears and anxieties (and don’t pass on your own)
2. Give your children (reasonable) responsibilities that demonstrate your faith in their abilities
3. Help your children identify and acknowledge their strengths
4. When that term report arrives, focus more on the comments about effort and improvement, and less on the final grade
5. Help your child to accept that making mistakes is a normal part of learning

Would these ideas be useful to present at a staff meeting or a parent evening? Go to my workshops link

For more articles about Dweck’s research and Mindset Psychology click on the links below.

Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids by Ann Pleshette Murphy and Jennifer Allen

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids by Carol Dweck