Can Praising Your Kid Backfire?

Family Travel on 04.28.11
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Climb in my time machine with me to 1969, won't you? Besides free love and drugs and rock n' roll, something else was a-brewing. A little something called self-esteem awareness. Thanks to the 1969 book, "The Psychology of Self-esteem," by psychologist Nathaniel Brandon, Americans came to understand how self-worth might be the key to success. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Except that it's not quite that easy or simple. And, perhaps, as "NurtureShock" authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out, this line of reasoning could lead us to extremes, one in which a school in Massachusetts forgoes using actual rope while jump-roping, lest a child trip and feel foolish. Huh?

Bronson and Merryman take the praise and self-esteem issue head on in their book. The authors use the example of a kid named Thomas, who as a kindergartener was administered an IQ test. The test revealed that not only was Thomas in the top 1 percent of the test results, but the top 1 percent of the 1 percent. Fast forward to his teen years and Thomas identifies himself as a smart kid, and is a smart kid. The problem is, as his father notices, Thomas can seriously slack off on what he's doing, and he doesn't pursue anything he's not good at.

My friend and podcast partner, Terri, pointed out to me that this would've been the kid we all went to school with who "just wasn't applying himself." Code for what the heck are you doing kid?  - you could rule the world if you want to.

Turns out that being praised can lead to a self-esteem trap of sorts. Sure, we want to embolden and empower our children, but a lot of what we've been told about self-esteem is based on some erroneous data and some well-intentioned but misinformed assumptions. And while everyone would agree that you never want to put your kid down, giving a blank check of encouragement to your child could cause some serious confusion.

The Dweck Experiment
In "NurtureShock," Bronson and Merryman point to very telling data about praising our children. The data come from Dr. Carol Dweck , who for 10 years studied the effects of praise on children. She sent research assistants to fifth grade classrooms and pulled out kids individually to give them a nonverbal IQ test. The test was an easy puzzle and all the kids did well. Here's the kicker: Half of the kids were told that they must be smart to have done well (the smart kids); the other half were told that they had worked really hard and done well as a result (the effort kids). The kids were then given a choice of a new test and told that they could repeat a similar, easy puzzle or pick a harder one. Ninety percent of the effort kids chose the harder test, while the majority of the smart kids chose the easy puzzle.

The researchers created a new test in which all the kids would fail. This would allow the researchers to see how the kids handled themselves in the face of adversity. The effort kids thought they hadn't worked hard enough and approached the problem from all angles. The smart kids thought their failure was evidence that they weren't really smart. Heartbreaking, I know.

The final test given was easy like the first test. It was used to see what the cumulative effect of the two different praise messaging would yield for the two groups. Overall, the effort kids increased their scores by thirty percent and the smart kids decreased their scores by 20 percent. Remember, this is the easy test that they had all initially done well on.

A riff on the Dweck experiment had the kids being brought to the researchers' offices by two different groups of parents, Chinese-American and American moms. This time the kids were allowed to confer with their parents halfway through their (difficult) tests for five minutes. In the videotapes, the American moms gave their kids general encouragement, like, "You're so smart, you can do it" and then changed the subject to something lighter. The Chinese-American moms told their kids they weren't trying hard enough and asked them about the test material. Both groups gave the same amount of encouraging hugs and smiles to their kids.

Guess which group fared better? The Chinese-American kids increased their scores by 33 percent after talking to their moms for five minutes.

According to Bronson and Merryman, these types of experiments have been repeated over and over again for number of years with the same results, no matter the gender or the socioeconomic level. So what's going on here?

The Conclusions
Dweck says, "When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don't risk making a mistake." But kids praised for their efforts are instilled with the idea that they can control the outcomes -- they can increase their knowledge at will. Kids told they're smart feel as though they can't control something that's supposed to be innate. They underrate the importance of effort and minimize risks by not attempting other things. Think of the Thomas example from the beginning -- he's avoiding things that require effort so that he doesn't harm his rep.

In fact, one researcher found that by age 12, if a kid gets praise in the classroom, he or she thinks that they aren't doing well and needs the encouragement. That's how perceptive kids are when it comes to empty or general praise. They're not sure what it is about them that's being called out and just assume that they're not up to snuff.

Praising Better
So what are well-intentioned parents and educators to do? I'm certainly not going to stop praising my daughter -- she genuinely knocks my socks with her sense of humor and observances. But "NurtureShock" is not a prescriptive book; it's not going to tell us what to do. That being said, it does lay some specific information out there to help us better shape the way we communicate with our kids. (I know, I know -- it nearly takes a Zen master to be aware of every little thing you say to your kid these days. But it's doable.)

Being sincere and specific with our praise is pretty key. Saying "You're so smart" or "Great job" just doesn't cut it. And, full disclosure here, I'm the first person to murmur, "Great job!" to my 2 year old when I'm in the middle of something and she's just made me an umbrella (a Dixie cup on top of a pencil). It reasons that if I just keep saying "You're so smart," she may just make a thousand umbrellas for me rather than trying something else that her imagination conjures up.

So I'm going to talk about the effort, "Wow, you took a pencil and put a cup on it upside down, and now it looks just like an umbrella." Or I'm going to take a cue from Terri, who asks her kids about what they've just done they can describe the effort they put into something. And when my daughter goes down the slide for the one-millionth time, I'm going to try to avoid the knee-jerk, "Great job" praise.

And for doing this, I'm going to give myself a pat on the back and say, "Good job" -- because we all know how much praise adults get. I'll take any old bone.

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(Photo credit Bonnie Schupp/