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The Power of Praise


In a study on the effect of praise, researchers gave individual children puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. When the kids finished, the researchers gave them a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence with "You must be smart at this", while the others were complimented on their effort with "You must have worked really hard".


Then the kids were given a choice of puzzles for the second round. One choice involved puzzles that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids they'd learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice involved puzzles that were easier. 90% of those praised for their effort chose the harder puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy puzzles. The "smart" kids took the copout—the easy way out.


Then they gave the kids more difficult puzzles, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level, to see how they would respond to failure. The group of children praised for their effort assumed they simply hadn't focused hard enough on the puzzle. They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles; many of them remarked, unprovoked, "this is my favorite". Not so for those praised for their smarts… they just assumed their failure was evidence that they weren't really smart at all.

Now that the kids had experienced failure, the researchers followed up with a final round of puzzles that were as easy as the first round. Those kids who had been praised for their effort significantly improved. Those who'd been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning.


The researchers had suspected that praise could backfire, but even they were surprised by the magnitude of the effect. Emphasizing effort gives a child a sense of control in their own success. Emphasizing natural intelligence provides the child with no good recipe for responding to failure.


Those children who think their innate, natural intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kid’s reasoning goes; I don't need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it's public proof that you can't cut it on your natural gifts.


Researchers found this effect of praise for intelligence held true for students in every socio-economic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren't immune to the inverse power of praise. Studies on the effect of praise on children shed light on the notion that praise for intelligence boosts children's confidence.


If we want to encourage our kids to believe in themselves, to continue to persist, we need to steer clear of words like "great" and "perfect" and "smart". Instead, describe what you see (such as, “You are working really hard”) or describe what you feel (such as, “I feel happy when I look at your painting”). This is called descriptive praise.


Best of all, descriptive praise gives kids the courage and motivation to continue their efforts and changes their inner voice to one related to effort, such as "I don't give up until I solve the problem".


You can also describe some of what you see in a single word: "You cleaned up your spot at the table without being asked! That's what I call responsibility".

We can also take the approach of describing, to children, what they have accomplished, however little that might be. For example, "You got dressed, finished your breakfast and brushed your teeth. All you have left to do is get your shoes and socks on and you're ready to go!". By pointing out progress, we give our children the courage to continue to persevere.

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