The perils of praise

Praising your child’s intelligence can backfire, writes Po Bronson in a great New York Magazine story. Kids told they’re smart may be afraid to try new things for fear they’ll look stupid; they can’t deal with frustration. Children praised for their effort have the resilience to tackle challenges.

Psychologist Carol Dweck gave fifth graders an easy puzzle test.

Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

. . . Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Given a hard test, the “effort” students worked hard to solve the puzzles and said they enjoyed the test; “smart” students were miserable.

On the final, easy test, students praised for effort improved their scores by 30 percent while those told they were smart did 20 percent worse.

Another study at a school for low-income minority students found dramatic improvements when students were told that hard work exercises and strengthens their brains. They started working harder and learning more.

The self-esteem movement has cheapened praise. Bronson cites experiments by psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer.

According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well — it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism — not praise at all — that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Specific praise — you did a good job of passing the ball or focusing on your homework or sounding out words — is useful feedback. “You’re so smart” is not.

Of course, this ties in with research on Asian vs. U.S. parents: Japanese and Chinese parents tend to believe school success is a function of effort, while U.S. parents are more likely to think innate intelligence is the key factor. Guess who works harder?

Update: Here’s a Media Bistro story on how the Po Bronson story came to be. I like the part about the writer and the editor trying out the no-general-praise theory on their own kids.

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