When Praise is Harmful


When Praise is Harmful

As a parent, I want to raise my children in a way that celebrates who they are and what they achieve. I want them to know that they have a special place in the world and that the world is truly a better place because they are in it.

I feel this way so strongly that sometimes when I think of how much I love my children, and how much I want them to understand that they are special – my heart actually constricts for a moment… fluttering in anticipation for their future.

I don’t think I am alone on this one – I think that most parents feel this way about their children. One way in which we try to give our children this positive message is through praise. Contrary to three or four generations ago, when children ‘were seen and not heard’, in today’s world, we praise our children as diligently as we feed and bath them – it is a ‘staple food’ in our daily emotional diet.

However, just like not all foods are healthy, not all kinds of praise are healthy either. Certain kinds of praise are like junk food, filled with empty calories, while other kinds of praise are like smorgasbords of finest organic fruits and vegetables, packed with healthy nutrients.

What is “junk food praise” and why is it unhealthy?

One example of junk food praise is when our praise labels our children. Remember that any label (positive or negative) can be damaging because it shapes how a child views himself and the world. “But…” I hear you say… “isn’t a ‘positive label’ good for self-concept?” No. Not always.

For example, if your child completes a puzzle and you say proudly, “oh you’re so clever!” you are effectively labelling your child as clever. What happens then is interesting, because instead of having a positive effect, your child actually starts to become fearful of living up to this expectation of ‘cleverness’.

They become afraid of trying something that they just might not succeed in, lest they be ‘caught out’ and no longer be considered as clever. Because, you see, after hearing it enough times they start to equate their ‘cleverness’ with your love – in other words, mommy and daddy love them because they’re clever.

What is “organic praise” and why is it healthy?

Using the same example, a healthy response to a finished puzzle could be, “Well done for completing the puzzle! I have noticed that you started with the corners today. That worked well. Good plan” or “I saw you enjoyed that puzzle and worked hard at it. Way to go!”

By giving this kind of practical feedback, you are effectively telling your child that his efforts and choices are noticed and valued. He is a capable human being who can achieve things when he applies himself. Working hard can be fun and, at times, having a good time is a good reason in itself to do things!

When you give practical feedback, your child needn’t be afraid of living up to any passive ‘label’ bestowed on him by forces outside his sphere of influence. The focus is on what he does and chooses – two things that he can control. As a result, he will be more willing to try new and more difficult things. He is given the message that ‘we enjoy watching you develop and make choices’ instead of ‘how lucky we are that you are so smart.’

This gives your child the security of knowing that your love and approval are not dependent on his success. Because let’s face it, all people and our children included, will face their fair share of failures.

After all, being successful has nothing to do with avoiding failure with a big old ‘clever-label’ around your neck. On the contrary, it’s about learning the lessons that you need to learn from your own fair share of ups and downs – so that you can get to a place where you are truly leading a life that you love.

A fascinating bit of research:

In her article entitled The Perils and Promises of Praise, American psychologist Dr Carol Dweck, who has studied student motivation for 35 years, explains that the way in which children view their own intelligence is closely linked to how they are praised (Dweck 1999, 2006).

In one of her studies, a group of 5th grade children were all given a task to complete, and then one group of them was praised for their intelligence only (“You must be smart at these problems”), while the second group was praised for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”).

The researchers then asked a question that each child had to agree or disagree with – “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you cannot really change.” Children praised for their intelligence agreed more with this statement than children who were praised for their efforts!

The children were also asked to define intelligence, and once again, the children praised for intelligence made more reference to it being a fixed and innate capacity, while children praised for their effort made references to effort and learning.

The children were then given the option of working on a task that was challenging or a task that guaranteed an error-free performance. Most of the children praised for intelligence opted for the easy task, while most children praised for effort opted for the challenging task.

Next, the children were given a challenging task to complete, on a whole the children who were praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as it became difficult because they equated success with ‘cleverness’ and if they were struggling, then it meant that they were not clever… The other group who were praised for their effort, on the whole, remained confident and eager.

Finally, when the children were asked to hand in their scores (anonymously), almost 40% of the intelligence-praised children lied, because their feelings of self-worth were so wrapped up in their performance that they couldn’t admit to mistakes. Only 10% of the effort-praised children falsified their results. (I have to admit that I’m a bit taken aback by the fact that so many of them actually lied!)

“Praising children for their intelligence, then, hands them not motivation and resilience but a fixed mind-set with all its vulnerability. In contrast, effort or ‘process’ praise (praise for engagement, perseverance, strategies, improvement, and the like) fosters hardy motivation. It tells children what they’ve done to be successful and what they need to do to be successful again in the future,” says Dr Dweck.

What to make of this?

We believe we are all praising our children from our hearts and with the best intentions. But, as always, parents who know better do better. That is why we have written about this because many parents would never guess that something as well-intentioned as telling their child that he is clever can have such a far-reaching impact.

In our next post, we will give you 3 practical tips on how to avoid the wrong the kinds of praise by replacing them with the right kinds of praise. Until then, let’s just play it safe and follow the advice of Kenneth Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager: catch them doing things right. When your children do things that legitimately warrant praise from you, give practical feedback on what they have done right and the good choices that they have made.

And don’t forget to tell them that you’re so thankful that they were born. I can’t imagine that that could ever back-fire?

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better
Comments? Please email lizette@practicaprogramme.co.za

*Practica Parents: All the activities in the Practica Programme obviously give Practica kids more opportunities than most children to do things that call for praise from parents. I can imagine that it’s going to take some practice to think of things to say that are practical and relevant – it just used to be so much easier to sincerely respond with “you’re so smart” to everything! But it cannot be too difficult. If our kids can learn new things – so can we!

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