Praise that Causes More Harm than Good

Earlier this week, New York Magazine published an article about how praising your child can damage them.

For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

In the study, fifth-graders solved a series of puzzles. Half of the students were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”); the other half were praised for their efforts (“You must have worked really hard.”). Then, for the second round of puzzles, students were offered a choice. They could take an easier series that was like the first series, or they could take a harder series. The students were told that they’d learn a lot from the harder series. The students who were praised for their effort overwhelmingly chose the harder series, while the students who were praised for being smart took the easier route.

I’m reminded of some vocalists I’ve known. Their livelihood depends on a skill that is far from certain. A minor illness or poor choice of beverage can cripple their ability to sing. Anxiety can strip them of their voice. Given the uncertainty and lack of control, some create superstitious explanations about why their voice behaves like it does. In extreme cases they’ll avoid riskier songs for fear of failing. Other types of artists, pro athletes–anyone who depends on uncertain skills can fall into the same trap.

Praising children’s intelligence can push them right into that trap. Intelligence, at least as it’s presented, isn’t something you control, whereas effort is. Intelligence is a gift, after all. What happens if your smarts go away? If you do poorly on a test, does that mean you’re stupid? Best to take the easy way out and avoid failure at all costs. That way people will still think you’re smart.

The problem is that we want to build our kids’ self-esteem. We want them to do well. The tool that’s most at-hand for adjusting their behavior is praise. Given its manipulative behavior, it’s no wonder we all learn to be wary of lavish praise by the time we’re seven. Fortunately, there are good alternatives. Child psychologists talk about descriptive praise, where you describe what your child has done instead of evaluating it. What you’re really wanting to supply is encouragement rather than praise.

This approach to encouragement isn’t limited to how we deal with children. In recent years I’ve taken on a more managerial role in my job. I’ve struggled with how to motivate people and let them know they’re doing well. By nature I tend to let people be. Even if I don’t praise someone, they’ll know they’re doing a good job, right? In fighting that tendency I often over-correct, handing out praise like beads at Mardi Gras, and in the process degrading its effectiveness. What I need is a middle ground, where I hand out praise and encouragement for specific accomplishments.

Maybe I can practice it on Eli first.

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