Praising children

Prompted by a recent discussion on an Attachment Parenting community, I decided to read the first chapter of NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, on the subject of praise. In the discussion on the community in question, one person (apparently proudly) announced that she never praises her children, because all praise is bad in that it teaches children to rely on extrinsic evaluations. This sounded counterintuitive to me, and since the discussion had been started on the subject of NurtureShock‘s comments on praise, I decided to look for myself.

Bronson and Merryman (NurtureShock‘s authors) are unequivocally clear that all praise does not, in fact, have the same effect. There are productive forms of praise, and counterproductive ones, and the book provides some guidance on which is which.

Counterproductive praise

There are two major types of praise that are highly counterproductive: Praise based on innate skills and consolation praise.

Praise based on innate skills (“you’re so smart/athletic/gifted”) communicates that performance is based on inborn abilities, and that failure therefore indicates an unmovable obstacle. If I’m a genius but don’t master calculus, it must be because I’m not hard-wired for calculus and therefore ought not to continue trying. It also communicates that success is a destiny and an entitlement, not the result of persistence (and, frankly, a bit of luck).

However, the authors do neglect to comment that innate skills do create an advantage. Michael Phelps is an excellent example: His body is simply much better engineered for speed swimming than, say, mine is. A short person is going to have to have better aim and better jumping skills to succeed at basketball than a tall person is. Being more intellectually capable, along the same lines, does create an advantage at intellect-based skills. Where the praise goes awry is when it begins to communicate that added effort by the child is irrelevant. I recall the disappointment I felt when I mastered some challenge or other and my father responded with, “Well, good for you, I never doubted you because you’re so smart.”

Consolation praise, especially of the sort given by teachers (“You’re trying your hardest and that’s what matters.”), is counterproductive because it suggests that the child has reached their own limits. In the research that Bronson and Merryman review, students reported feeling that criticism from teachers was implied praise, because it meant that the teacher felt the student still had the personal ability to improve, while praise from teachers was implied criticism. This matches my own experience: Teachers always seemed to have a higher standard for me than for most other students, and so when I did as well as the rest of the class, my cohort got praised while I got pushed harder.

Productive praise

The ideal sort of praise is, not coincidentally, not that different from the ideal sort of criticism: It identifies what the person did specifically, and how it has an impact on the outcome. If a child is having trouble with batting, for instance, something like, “You’re not following through on your swing. You’re holding back as you make contact.” is more constructive a criticism than “You’re not swinging correctly.” Likewise, if the child’s follow-through improves and results in hits, the best sort of praise is along the lines of, “I see you’ve really been working on your follow-through. You got some hits out there today. Nice concentration.”

Praise should also be somewhat delayed, in order to give the child time to process their intrinsic assessment first, and intermittent: Enough praise so that the child realizes you value the effort and results (when you sincerely do), but not so much that the child loses the ability for intrinsic valuations.

I’ve been naturally leaning in these directions regardless, but I’ll admit that I’ve inserted the more-than-occasional “you’re so smart!” and “what a good boy you are!” counterproductive praise in my interactions with my own toddler. Reading the chapter now gives me the opportunity to process it and decide how much I’m going to curtail that sort of praising, in favor of the more specific types that we also dole out.

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