Let Us Now Praise...Properly

My father, who I admire a great deal, is not one to hand out a lot of praise. Actually, he doesn't hand out any praise. His attitude:
Cathy Arnst

My father, who I admire a great deal, is not one to hand out a lot of praise. Actually, he doesn't hand out any praise. His attitude: "You're supposed to do things well. My job is to point out how you could have done it better." Not an easy standard to live with, granted, but I think I can attribute a lot of my success in life to trying to live up to it.

Most parents today are far more liberal with praise, and it appears we may not be doing our kids any favors. A fascinating cover story in this week's New York Magazine, titled How Not To Talk To Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise, finds that children are much more motivated if they are praised for the effort they put into a project, rather than their intelligence or innate ability. Given that one survey found that 85% of U.S. parents think it's important to tell their kids they are smart, we could be raising a generation of underachievers.

The article's author, Po Bronson, highlights the extensive research of Dr. Carole Dweck, a psychologist now at Stanford University. Her discovery:

Students who view their intelligence as an unchangeable internal characteristic tend to shy away from academic challenges, whereas students who believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence seek them out.

Many teachers and parents may be unwittingly leading students to accept an entity view of intelligence. By praising students for their intelligence, rather than effort, many adults are sending the message that success and failure depend on something beyond the students' control. Comments such as “You got a great score on your math test, Jimmy! You are such a smart boy!” are interpreted by students as “If success means that I am smart, then failure must mean that I am dumb.” When these students perform well they have high self-esteem, but this crashes as soon as they hit an academic stumbling block. Students who are praised for their effort are much more likely to view intelligence as being malleable, and their self-esteem remains stable regardless of how hard they may have to work to succeed at a task. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that these students are more likely to be willing to push through setbacks and reach their full academic potential.

Bronson describes a study Dweck conducted of 412 New York City fifth graders that supports her theory. The students were given successively more challenging tests. Those who had been praised for their effort on earlier tests significantly improved on their first score, by about 30%. Those who had been told they were smart did worse than they had at the beginnning, by about 20%.

The article also described research that would make my father smile knowingly, by psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a specialist in self-esteem. He found that, by age 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign that you did well--it's actually a sign that you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teenagers discount praise to such an extent that they believe it's a teacher's criticism, not praise at all, that really conveys a positive belief in a student's aptitude.

Good grief! Does this mean my father was right? If so, I don't think I'll tell him. After all, he's supposed to be right. My job is to find other failings to blame him for.

Read the article. It's well worth it.

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