Here are several statements that I’ve made to my almost two year old son during the last few days, and I feel terrible about all of them.
- “You’re so smart! You did it!” after he chose the correct color crayon when I asked him to pick out the blue one.
- “What a brave boy!” about ten times after he went down the slide again and again by himself on the playground.
- “Good job! You’re such a good cleaner” after each time that he dusted a different piece of furniture in the house with his little “duster.”
- “Excellent work! You’re so strong!” after he pulled himself into the stroller by himself.
- And, finally, most troublingly, this morning, I realized that my son was looking up to me for applause — yes, actual clapping — and praise each time he put the correct block into his shape sorter toy.
Right then I realized that I may be creating a “praise junkie” — a child who is dependent on an adult’s constant praise and attention in order to try hard at certain tasks.
I should know better.
In my 12 years as a teacher, I was a disciple of Carol Dweck, the psychologist who made famous the hazards of overpraising children at home and at school. In my English and history classrooms, I tried to give specific, authentic feedback for kids’ effort and persistence.
I knew that instead of saying, “You’re so smart,” a teacher should say, “You did a fantastic job with that introductory sentence.” Or instead of saying, “You’re such a good drawer,” you should say, “I’m so impressed with how hard you worked on that picture. The colors that you chose are beautiful.”
When talking to kids about how they’re doing, adults should always focus on praising a child’s efforts or process. Telling kids that they’re “smart” or praising their personal qualities may actually backfire. According to Dweck’s research, praising kids for their intelligence or who they are — rather than what they have done — unwittingly teaches kids that being smart is a fixed trait.
Many of us were raised with the idea that praising kids (even sometimes for undeserved accomplishments) will improve their self-esteem, and this belief in their own abilities will ultimately lead to improved performance and success. However, exactly the opposite happens. Building kids’ self-esteem — as a goal in itself — has been proven by decades of research to be destructive to kids’ independence, academic skills, and motivation. They learn to discount feedback as a tool for improving their performance — understanding intuitively that it’s not always authentic — and they are sent the message that intellectual abilities are innate and that learning new strategies and putting forth more effort are futile. They become afraid of failure — because failure is thought to be reflective of their intelligence — and stop trying.
This is true even for babies and toddlers. Babies whose efforts are praised, rather than their natural talent, become better at facing challenges later on in childhood. They learn that mistakes are okay, and that effort is what’s important.
I know all of this. And have known it for years. I was an expert at specific, critical feedback as an educator. I’ve read countless books and studies on it. I’ve written research papers on self-efficacy, praise, and motivation. So why is this impossible to do with my own son?
Because, simply, I love him so much. He’s my baby boy, and he’s a part of me.
We want our kids to know that no matter what — success or failure — that we are on their side. We want them to know that we believe in them as deeply — or more — as we have ever believed in ourselves. We want them to know that our belief that they’re smart, amazing, and wonderful will never go away. Praise — even if we understand intellectually that it’s not a good idea — becomes a way of saying, “I love you. I’m here for you.”
I know I need to stop. From now on, I’ll try to keep my thoughts — “Oh, you’re my smart, perfect boy!” — to myself. Because it’s what’s best for him. And that’s ultimately what I want.
How do you praise your kids? Have you ever wondered if they’re getting praised too much?
Also, check out this post by Monica of Wired Momma about not raising a “praise junkie.” She talks to parenting coach, Meghan Leahy, and gets some valuable advice. I especially liked her distinction between “praise” and “encouragement.” For those of you wondering how to put this knowledge into real life practice, the piece describes specific examples — such as when your child makes the basketball team — and how to encourage them for their accomplishments and efforts.