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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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Can Praise Be Harmful to Children?

By Mike Brooks, Ph.D



It seems like it is common wisdom to praise our kids for things like their athletic skills, musical ability, intelligence, creativity, talent, and so on. We want them to internalize all of our praise and have high self-esteem, right? Interestingly, the research does not bear this out. Praising kids for things that are not directly under their control, like intelligence, can backfire.

Sure, we can improve our cognitive abilities (to a fairly large extent) through our efforts. Research in neuroscience has shown that the brain is remarkably plastic -But when we praise our kids with statements such as "Wow! You are SO smart!", we are not praising their efforts. We are praising an attribute as if it were a quality that is etched in stone.

Praise children for their effort

Psychologists have devised a number of ingenious experiments to test the idea that praising kids for attributes such as intelligence helps them have high self-esteem. The idea is that having high self-esteem can help children to persevere when they encounter challenges. What researchers are finding is that when kids are praised as being "smart" they are more likely to give up when encountering challenges. The psychologists hypothesize that such children are faced with a dilemma when they encounter these challenges. They say to themselves, "If I'm so smart, why am I having difficulties with this?" Rather than relinquishing the idea that they are smart, these children often give up more quickly. In essence, they are trying to protect their ego.

In contrast, effort is something that is more directly under our control. Children who are praised for their effort and perseverance tend to want to keep working when they encounter challenges. The praise reinforces the children's efforts and, because there are more likely to keep working on challenging tasks, these children also are more likely to experience success on difficult tasks. In effect, they get two rewards - the praise from the adult and the reward of completing a challenging task.

Ironically, children praised for their intelligence and other attributes (e.g., athletic ability, musical talent) with the goal of trying to increase their self-esteem are more likely to give up, which undermines their self-esteem. So, try to focus on praising your children's efforts rather than trying to bolster their self-esteem through just telling them how smart or athletic they are. This helps them to learn to focus their energy on what they can most directly control...their effort.

Be specific about the praise you give your children

Often we assume that, when we say "good job," little Billy knows to what we are referring. Billy might not have a clue. For example, if you exclaim "Wonderful job!" to Billy after he finishes a soccer game, how is he to know what you are talking about? Is it because he tried hard? Is it because he demonstrated good sportsmanship by helping an injured player? Is it because he passed the ball a lot to his teammates? If you are praising Billy in hopes that it encourages him to do more of that action in the next game, he needs to know what you mean.

Imagine if the performance review from your boss consisted of the words "GOOD JOB!" scrawled across the page. How helpful...or rewarding...would that be? Praise should provide some specific information that allows children to know exactly what they are doing well so they can choose to do more of that behavior the next time. Generic praise, in addition to not being informative, becomes very bland and children begin to lose interest in what you are saying.

Again, imagine if your boss praised you in the exact same way every time...and used that same praise with everyone else. After a while, you would probably tune him/her out. Help kids know what they are doing right by being specific in your use of praise. Ensure that you have variety as well. Use hand signals, pats on the back, different wording, various vocal inflections, and so on. This will allow kids the ability to use the information that you convey more effectively. Remember, it doesn't guarantee that they do what you want, but at least they have what they need to make a more informed choice about their behavior.

Use the "principle of opposites"

What is the most annoying behavior of your child? Does he frequently interrupt you? Does she have trouble complying with directions? What ever behavior it is, find its opposite...that's the one that you really want to see more of anyway. Instead of giving most of your attention to a particular behavior of your child that annoys you, you "catch him" behaving well in the opposite area. Then, give him specific praise. "Billy, I really appreciate how you put away your toys right when I asked." Remember, don't just say "good job" when Billy puts his toys away...that's not specific enough.

This takes practice - you will be breaking your old habit of repeatedly attending to your child's negative behavior. Maybe even put a post-it note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself. Enlist your significant other's support and help each other out so you can create a new habit. You'll find that you're much less negative toward your child AND it is likely that your child's behavior will improve in that area that has been so troublesome.

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Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
By Alfie Kohn

The basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you'll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way we train the family pet. Drawing on a wealth of psychological research, Alfie Kohn points the way to a more successful strategy based on working with people instead of doing things to them.

"Do rewards motivate people?" asks Kohn. "Yes. They motivate people to get rewards." Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished By Rewards presents an argument unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.

 

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