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Praise Revisited

I have written a good deal on the subjects of praise (the right way to do it) and self-esteem (how it is misunderstood and overrated by parents and teachers).

There is a new study that reinforces my ideas about praise. Dr. Elizabeth Gunderson at Temple University videotaped over 50 toddlers and their parents interacting at home. Parents were told the study was looking at child language development so as not to affect how they talked to their children.

The researchers looked at how parents praised their child. There are two ways to praise your child. One focuses on what the child is doing while the other focuses on the child’s personal characteristics. A parent can say, “You tried real hard!” instead of “You are real smart.” The first one is better.

Why? If a parent focuses on the process of what the child is doing it tells the child that effort, trying, even experimenting can lead to success. When a parent praises by stressing the child’s own characteristics (“You are sooo smart!”) the message is that the characteristics are fixed and will always be there.

This study provides us with pretty powerful data that should convince parents about the right way to praise. Five years after the initial videotaping the parents were asked whether the child preferred easy or challenging tasks and whether the child was easily frustrated if they found a task was tough.

When parents praised the child’s actions rather than the child him or herself, the child was more positive about challenges, better able to come up with strategies after a setback, and believed they could improve if they worked hard.

Total amount of praise did not seem to matter. But there was a gender difference. Parents tend to give more process praise to boys. And, as one would expect boys were more apt to feel they could get smarter if they worked hard.

Jean Twenge a psychology professor at San Diego State University, commenting on the study said, “Self-esteem in and of itself doesn’t lead to good things, such as good grades or preventing bad behavior. It’s better to focus on self-efficacy—thinking you can do something—and self-control.” Gunderson says, “ It’s really about fostering the mindset that challenge and effort are good and you can always improve if you work hard.” Amen. Parents, your goal: focus your praise on the child’s actions not the child’s characteristics.

Parental overpraise can lead to the Adorable Child Syndrome. These kids are so irresistible that all grownups are attracted to them. They are so verbal and witty that every cute saying is repeated over and over again until these children think everything they say is golden and that they can say nothing wrong.

Unfortunately when such a child tells a peer something like, “I’m the smartest kid in the world! You have to listen to me and do what I say!” your kid quickly morphs from Adorable Kid into Obnoxious Kid Nobody Wants to Play With!

Yes, parents, we can overdo praise. We can inadvertently give our offspring the sense that they are absolutely wonderful, so wonderful that they don’t have to worry about how they behave toward others. Studies have shown that adults give more positive attention to cute kids and tend to ignore unattractive ones so the Adorable Child gets more attention from everybody: teachers, waitresses, checkers at the market.

I have long cautioned parents about overdoing praise especially global, continuous praise like, “You are so smart!” or “You are so adorable!”

Praise should be meaningful and specific and deserved. It should be used to provide the child with feedback about praiseworthy behaviors to encourage them in the future. Praise should not lead to a swollen ego.

What do you do if your offspring is already suffering from The Adorable Child Syndrome?

Actually there’s not much the parents can do until the child realizes how awful it is when peers don’t want you around. Adorable children have to learn how to get along in the world and their peers will be their teachers. When all the kids go home or refuse to play with them, hopefully their bright little brains will eventually connect the way peers treat them with their own behavior.

The parent’s role is to 1) Stop the wrong kind of praise and the non-stop praise. 2) Act as an interpreter of how the world works when your child asks, “Why won’t they play with me?” But don’t say too much. Better the child figures out as much as he or she can. You might answer, “Kids don’t like to be bossed around or told you are the smartest.” Then stop talking.

A child might say, “But I AM smart! Everybody says so!” The best response is, “Yes, but I know you want to have friends so you will learn to stop talking about how smart you are.”