All day long, I find myself saying “Good job!” and “Nice work!” to my daughter. These compliments are easy to give, but I know I need to up my praise game. Quick spurts of praise may make my daughter feel good, but they don’t truly give her feedback on her actions.
When we praise our children, we give them messages about themselves. By thinking about what we want our children to believe about themselves, we can target our praise to encourage these beliefs.
Recent research can help us to figure out what kind of praise benefits our kids the most. Below I’ve laid out four important findings about effective praise, including quick tips to use with our kids.
The most prominent research on praise has been Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset. Growth mindset is the idea that intelligence isn’t fixed, but something we can work to develop. Dweck’s work shows that instead of telling kids that they’re smart, it’s more beneficial to praise kids for their hard work. Emphasizing the effort that goes into learning helps kids to realize that they aren’t born smart/not smart, but that intelligence is something that can be gained.
In her article “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” Dweck says, “More than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.” By emphasizing the idea of innate intellectual ability, we set kids up for believing that their academic achievement is out of their hands. Instead, kids do better when they believe that they can become smarter through perseverance, education, and hard work.
Quick Tip: Instead of saying “You’re so smart,” say, “You really worked hard at this.”
Some parents and psychologists have been concerned about the negative aspects of too much praise. After reading Dweck’s research as a teacher, I remember feeling self conscious about the reflex-like way I said “Good job!” after my students did something desirable.
In the article “The Difference Between Praise & Feedback,” the supposed problem with parental praise is that some see praise as “manipulative, intrusive, and undermining both children’s intrinsic enjoyment of what they’re doing and their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard.”
I think this view of praise is extreme and appreciated how later in the article parents are encouraged to ask questions instead of, or in addition to, giving praise. As professor of psychology Edward Deci says, “You want to understand what your child is thinking and feeling, to be respectful toward them. Asking questions is a far better idea than giving praise.” I’ve found the combination of praise and questioning to be a powerful way to understand children’s thinking while simultaneously giving encouragement.
Quick Tip: Instead of saying, “Nice job on the science project.” Say, “I loved how you really investigated your research question. Why did you choose to focus on this topic?”
Recently I read an article in the New York Times called “Raising a Moral Child.” Much like Dweck’s research, this article completely changed the way I think about praise. The study discussed here focused on giving kids feedback on their actions versus feedback based on their character. After encouraging kids to share their marbles with others, some kids were told, “That was a very helpful thing to do,” while others were told, “You are a very kind and helpful person.” It was found kids were “much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been.”
When I first read this research, it seemed contradictory to Dweck’s research. But after thinking about it further, I realized that both sets of research show us how kids internalize the messages we give them. It’s beneficial for kids to see themselves as kind, generous, and caring. Identifying with these character traits encourages more kindness, generosity, and caring. On the flipside, believing that intelligence is fixed discourages kids from displaying perseverance and trying new things. When we simply tell kids that they’re smart, they don’t feel the same encouragement to do more “smart things.”
Quick Tip: Instead of saying, “That was a really generous thing to do,” say, “You are really a generous person.”
I’m not committing to banning “Good job!” from my vocabulary, but I’m hoping to be more aware of the kind of praise I give. After immersing myself in the research about praise, I’m going to try to give more growth-oriented praise, emphasize my daughter’s positive character traits, and ask lots of questions. Above all, I’m going to be more mindful of how simple phrases can communicate important messages of self-worth and identify.