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Thursday, March 01, 2007


When Good Praise Goes Bad

So THIS is what’s wrong with our kids today.

Alice, of Finslippy and wonderland recently posted an entry regarding a news item that reported an increase in “problem children” for which many sociological and economical forces were considered as primary sources of influence. The usual suspects are rounded up and blamed: Kids from dual income homes and the resulting lack of supervision, the media, and even feminism.

The real source of the problem might be parents tell who their kids how smart they are.

Is it possible that the real cause of this increase in “problem children” is too much praise?

Sounds suspect right? Well, I majored in Child Psychology, and after reading this article ( http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/index.html ) in New York Magazine, written by Po Bronson, I have to say, my opinions about self-esteem and praise of children completely turned around.

Thanks to a couple of commenters over at Mandajuice for publishing the link.

It turns out that telling your kid how smart they are can actually be bad for them.

Praise isn’t necessarily BAD. But giving your child general praise about their intelligence (for example: “You are so smart Timmy!”) may not be good for them. At all.

If you frequently tell your child they are a genius, they learn to rely purely on organic talent and just give up in the face of difficulty. In their minds, struggling equates to ignorance. They become fearful of losing the label of “Smart”, and in order to save face, they just refuse to try. Interesting.

Scientific evidence reveals physiological effects on the brains of children who learn to struggle to find solutions versus children who give up in the face of a challenge.

I recommend you read the entire article, but here are a few teasers:

“praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy.”

“The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

“image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.”

“without regard for effort or the impact of skill development based on a good workout of the old brain….The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear…..Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.”

The Socioeconomic factors that lead many parents to charter dual-income territory does play a role in all of this. What I find the most interesting, is that the problem behaviors exhibited by children of dual income households don’t necessarily stem from hours of unsupervised delinquency. What seems to matter most is how PARENTS adapt their parenting styles to compensate for perceived shortcomings based on their time constraints which reduce the amount of face time parents get with their kids:

“Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

Working parents may lay it on a little thick in the praise department in an effort to compensate for the lack of time they are able to spend with their kids. Apparently parents who go this route aren’t doing their kids any favors.

So, is all of the lingo about encouraging self-esteem a bunch of hooey? Yes, if you over-simplify (You’re a genius, Mary!) and leave out the parts about hard work and stick-to-it-iveness. A more effective approach is to praise them for the process (You really stuck with it! Way to pay attention to directions!).

The conclusion: Don’t tell little Sally and Timmy how smart they are unless you want them to end up as lazy ninnies who don’t even want to try unless they’re immediately deemed “the best” at something. Get specific about behaviors. Teach them that intelligence isn’t chiseled in stone, and can be developed by challenging ones brain. When they are old enough, a good study of dendrite connections and how they are made might come in handy.

Praise them for gutting it out, and show them that the difference between potential and success is often just a little bit of elbow grease.

And for the love of God, stop telling them how smart they are. If you really thought they were that smart, they’d already know it themselves. Right?


Anonymous Lin said...

Good posting, Meghan. Hope lots of folks read this one. I must confess to casting a jaundiced eye towards folks when they overpraise. It is tiresome to the extreme and lays a shaky, whacky foundation for kids.

God, but your niece is funny!

2:54 PM  
Anonymous abogada said...

Very interesting article. Thank you. Unfortunately, I'm guilty as charged.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Alpha DogMa said...

That's a really interesting article. Thanks for the head's up. I'll TRY to change, but can make no promises. I'm too am a praise junkie.

This year we received a Christmas newletter from friends saying her 5 month old daughter "loves her 5 year-old brother and thinks he is the smartest, funniest, sweetiest boy on the planet." I don't doubt for a moment the baby believes this, as her parents constantly praise her brother to this effect.

I'd like to know what child psychologists think of the scrapbooking craze. To me this seems like the ulimate hollow-ego boost for children.

(came here via Rosebud and Papoosie Girl's blog)

10:11 PM  
Blogger Alpha DogMa said...

(sweetest, not sweetiest - sorry.)

10:13 PM  
Anonymous TB said...

I see the point but to take it a step further, couldn't the same be true of any non-specific label we give our children without enforcing the behaviors they've done to earn it - pretty, smart, funny, talented, etc.

2:16 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I like your take on this (FINALLY got here to read it!) and especially with your background.

But I admit I still feel like this is nitpicky little issue that families of great privilege can debate, but that it probably isn't an issue effecting millions of kids aversely. I agree there's a way to praise, and a way to overpraise, but I would hope that most parents with a lick of sense don't teach their kids that smart is more important than effort.

Isn't that why we tell them "good game" even after a 14-zip whallop at the hands of the opposition? Isn't that why we use cliches like "well, you tried your best"?

I wrote about it today at my place. Well, sort of.

12:13 PM  

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