The Right Kind of Praise Can Make a Difference

Originally published May 15, 2011 in the Poughkeepsie Journal, Gannett News Services. Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and lecturer in psychology and education at Vassar College. She is the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College and on the board of trustees of the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum.

Every semester, I post a sign on my office door for one week: “It’s that time of year. Please do not disturb unless urgent.” It is the marker to others, and to myself, that the end of the semester is near. While students stay awake studying and writing, professors are up reading and grading. In academia, it is the storm before the calm.

When I was a student, the call of spring seemed tantalizing, but tolerable; I could take in small bits and still be productive.

Three decades later, neither my body nor my mind can work efficiently in an unstructured environment. By the time I set up a cushioned chair to support my back, don a baseball hat and sunglasses to allow me to see my laptop screen without glare, put on SPF 80 sunscreen and take Advil for a possible “sun headache” … the great outdoors somehow loses its appeal.

Instead, I sit on a comfortable, supported chair in a quiet, air conditioned library and gaze out the window at a world in full bloom. My mind wanders to being outside, but for graduation, not grading. I imagine the graduates sitting before me, surrounded on the hillside by proud parents, family and friends. I wonder about each of their paths to arrive at this day, and their journeys yet unknown. I think about my own.

At Vassar, graduation tends to be an oddly appropriate event. Usually, praise and acclimations bestowed upon the graduates are related to effort and hard work, perseverance and resiliency. Authentic accomplishments are recognized, not only in the graduates but in the commencement speaker’s own life work.

The roads, rivers and superhighways beyond the college’s main gate are not portrayed like a rainbow path on a Candyland game board. No one hands out a road map. Diplomas are not stamped with “certificate of guaranteed success.”

And not once have I heard the words, “You did it! You’re so smart!”

So what’s this got to do with a column on parenting in the early years? Everything.

One of the most common parenting questions I get asked is about praise. Can I praise my child too much? Not enough? Will too much praise make them feel entitled? Will not enough ruin their self-esteem?

Research on praise for effective learning offers insight into these questions. Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University and her colleagues have conducted studies on the factors that produce self-directed learners who seek to take on challenges. They give children a set of puzzles to solve that increase in difficulty and offer different kinds of praise for their successes.

In one group, children receive praise focusing on intelligence: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” In another group, children receive praised based on their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

The researchers then asked the children what kind of problems they wanted to work on next: ones that they are good at and would make them look smart, or ones that are very challenging where they might make mistakes but learn something important.

The results are dramatic. In only one session, children who were praised for their intelligence chose tasks to make them look smart, so as not to risk this label. Those praised for effort overwhelmingly chose the harder task that they could learn from.

Dweck refers to these as teaching a fixed mindset (how I do is already determined by my intelligence) versus a growth mindset (I can change what I know by taking on challenges).

By applying these strategies, Dweck and her colleagues demonstrated substantial changes in students’ ability to complete work, ask for feedback and view school as a place for learning rather than test performance. Perhaps most exciting is how quickly these changes had a positive effect.

It is important, though, to keep one’s praise authentic. This means that your praise matches your child’s effort and the magnitude of the task. A growth mindset approach explicitly accepts mistakes, teaches strategies instead of focusing on right or wrong answers, points out the value of practice and encourages constructive feedback.

As parents, we can see our job as a steamroller, trying to keep ahead of our children to make their road smooth. Usually, it is better to leave the bumps in the road and offer a steady hand to help them learn how to climb over them.


Photo/image by: Airi’s PAPA / Flickr