How can something that feels so good be so…not? A recent New York Magazine article by Po Bronson warns about the perils of praise. In “How Not to Talk to Your Kids”, the author reports findings from a series of experiments conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) that studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York public schools. Children in the study were given an easy series of puzzles. Afterwards, each child was given his score. Half of them received brief praise for their intelligence, “You must be smart at this.” The other half were praised for effort, “You must have worked really hard.” The reactions of the children were astounding.
When given a choice between an easy or more difficult test the second time around, the children who had been told they were smart wimped-out, picking the easier test. The children praised for trying were up to the challenge of something harder.
Then, in a difficult third round of tests, all the children failed. The ‘effort’ children felt they could do better; they enjoyed the challenge and wanted to try again. They continued to show tenacity, perseverance, and improvement. The ‘smart’ kids seemed totally defeated and threw in the towel.
If a stranger’s praise has such power to influence a child, imagine the effects of a parent’s daily validation!
The article also examines children like Thomas, a boy with an IQ in the top 1% and no self-confidence. He balks when asked to try new skills like fractions or cursive, and even refuses to attempt them. He gives up if he doesn’t master a skill immediately. All his life he has been praised for his intelligence, but he has no courage or initiative. He is filled with self-doubt in his abilities. He won’t risk failure.
What intrigues me about Dr. Dweck’s studies is that by confirming the negative effects of praise, they also confirm the effect of ‘nurture.’ But where the conclusions described in the New York article fall short for me, like most of what I read about parenting (and I’ve been reading a lot lately), is that they do not address the critical first years of life, the time when dysfunctional (or highly functional) parent/child patterns of interaction are created.
Self-confidence begins in infancy. Yes, children are resilient and adaptable, and it is never too late to make adjustments in the way we parent. But we have a window of opportunity in the first years to help our child grow healthy emotional roots strong enough to endure the rollercoaster of life.
We use praise believing it bolsters our child, makes him feel happy, capable, self-confident and loved. Those same good intentions also lead us to rush in to rescue children from any perceived suffering, including possible disappointments, struggles, frustration, mistakes and especially failure.
But, our “keep ‘em happy”, “feel good” parenting backfires, because our children really need to experience all those “negatives” in order to learn to take them in stride. They need to know that struggle, frustration, and failure are not to be feared, but just a part of life. In fact, healthy learning, growth and success are impossible without them.
Believing in our children is not telling them, “You’re great. I believe in you”, and then fixing their fallen block tower. It is believing in them enough to let them risk making mistakes, to flounder as they experiment with their developing skills. Tenacity and perseverance are not traits a child grows into. They are traits babies are born with. We condition our children to quit trusting themselves by helping too much or too soon.
Praising our children is a knee-jerk reaction that takes constant self-reminders to control. I still find myself starting to say “great job” to my children, and switching gears into, “You must be really proud of yourself!” It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. I feel lucky to have learned from infant expert Magda Gerber that the ability to persevere through frustration and struggle, and to then be acknowledged for one’s efforts is the real route to happiness and self-confidence. Continuous praise becomes empty, and there is never enough.
“Learning to fall, getting up again, and moving on, is the best preparation for life.” -Magda Gerber
I share more advice for raising self-confident, resilient children in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)