by Dr Stephanie Satariano (Educational Psychologist)
The importance of praise is now an old phenomenon; the notion has been around long enough for people to be sceptical about its benefits. It seems that we are beginning to underestimate its value and some even think it may be detrimental - I regularly get asked questions along the lines of: “but won’t praising my child spoil them?”… “Will it fill them with false hopes?”… “Will it make them become ‘big-headed’?”
Research tell us that praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits has a positive impact on their all-round development (Kamins and Dweck, 1999). What this means is that we should praise children using “process praise” – i.e. focusing on their efforts, actions and strategies to completing a task that helped them complete it, rather than our view of their inherent ability (“you’re so smart”, “you are good”)
Leading researchers have investigated the long-term effects of praise. They monitored how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and the impact of this on children 5 years later. The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (using process praise, for example "you put soap on the sponge really well"), the more likely it was that those children had a ‘incremental attitude’ towards intelligence. This means that they believe that intelligence is malleable and flexible, and within their control. Where as children who received unspecific and generic praise, that was focused on personality characteristics (such as “clever boy”) were more likely to have an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence; believe it is fixed and unchanging and they can do nothing about it.
Do I want my child to have an incremental attitude towards intelligence?
YES! Such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty. From other research we know that such a mind-set has a strong positive impact on children’s life and academic success.
So how should we praise our children?
- “You found a good way to do that!” as opposed to “well done!”
- “you worked really hard at that!” as opposed to “you are so smart”
- “that was some really good addition” as opposed to “you are good at maths”
- “that is very nice handwriting” as opposed to “you have neat handwriting”
- “you did a good job drawing” as opposed to “you are a good drawer”
- “Good job counting” as opposed to “you’re a good counter”
- “that was good thinking” as opposed to “good boy”
What if they make a mess of the end product, and there is nothing to praise? Well is there really nothing to praise?? If you do some really good detective work there will be a least 1 action they did well, even if it was only standing up!
Cimpian, A., Arce, H., Markman, E. M., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues impact children's motivation. Psychological Science, 18, 314–316.
Kamins, M., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person vs. process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835–847.
Gunderson EA, Gripshover SJ, Romero C, Dweck CS, Goldin-Meadow S, and Levine SC (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child development, 84 (5), 1526-41 PMID: 23397904