Friday, September 7, 2012

Parenting Tips: The Inverse Power of Praise (i.e. Don't call your kids smart!)

By Tiffany Rudd
More than once in the past, Deborah and I have written about the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson. One of my favorite chapters in this book is called The Inverse Power of Praise and is subtitled "Sure, he's special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you'll ruin him. It's a neurobiological fact."

The basic concept of this chapter is that labeling children as "smart" does not prevent them from underperforming, it may actually cause it!

At first I was definitely a little shocked by this concept. How could telling my kids they are smart cause them to underachieve? In the book, Dr. Carol Dweck explains, "When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don't risk making mistakes." So, when something is difficult for them, rather than try and risk failure, they just give up.

In her research, Dweck discovered that kids who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. "I am smart, the kids' 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.

So, now I'm not supposed to praise my children? No, of course not! The book says that praise can be an effective and motivating force, but only when done correctly. So, how should we praise our kids?
    1. Be specific. Researchers have found that in order for praise to be effective in needs to be specific. For example, after a soccer game praise your child for looking to pass or working hard to get the ball instead of just saying, "You played great!" (pg. 20)
    2. Be sincere. Kids as young as seven can sense false praise and giving an overabundance of general praise can cause kids to discount sincere praise, lose intrinsic motivation, and become too competitive. (pg. 21)
    3. Praise Effort. According to the book, "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure." (pg. 15)
This last piece of advice has become a big one in our house, especially for Cameron. He tends to get frustrated and want to give up when anything is hard for him. So, we sat him down and talked to him about how the brain works by comparing it to Superman's strong muscles. We talked about how lifting heavy things and exercising makes muscles bigger and stronger. Now when something is hard for him I just have to remind him that thinking about and figuring out something hard makes his brain stronger and smarter. It has made a big difference in his willingness to continue trying. 

So, for the next week pay close attention to the kind of praise you give your children. Stop yourself before you compliment your kids to make sure your praise is specific, sincere, and praising effort not natural talent. If you're anything like me, it will be harder than you think.

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  1. I read the research report - it was fascinating. Its certainly made me watch what i say in the name of praise. Thank you for writing such a great concise summary. I'm sharing this on the Sunday Parenting Party pinterest board.


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