Not all forms of praise are created equal

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, 2009, Nurtureshock, Chatham: Ebury Press

Today, I am going to review a different type of material, a book that it is a kind parenting book, but one that looks at research on a number of parenting issues, and in doing so, questions much conventional practice and wisdom around these issues. I will discuss here just the first chapter, on praise.

There is a good discussion of this book (and many other issues) in the Ask Moxie blog.

What this chapter does is show how praising children’s intelligence can actually have the opposite effect of what you want to achieve, that is, it actually makes them less confident, and less likely to try challenging or new things. That is, it had the inverse effect of what praise is suppose to achieve, to give the child a high self-esteem, which so many studies agree is one of the most important facets of a person. This chapter is based mainly on research done by Carol Dweck, and her team at Stanford University, which focused on studying the effects of praise on students in twenty New York schools, through a series of experiments. The results of her studies show how children who were praised for their intelligence were more likely to give up when challenged, and to avoid new challenges. This is explained because children are made to feel self-conscious, and afraid of proving they are not smart. On the other hand, children who were praised on their efforts were more likely to persist in the face of difficulties and to try new challenges, as they are giving some measure of control – their effort- in terms of the results obtained. Their studies show that this worked for children from different socio-economic class, for both boys and girls, and not only for school aged children, but for pre-schoolers too.

The conclusion is that praising effort is helpful, whilst praising intelligence is not. Not all effort praise was created equal either though. Specific praise worked much better to focus their efforts. The praise also has to be sincere, if children are to take it on board. Sparing praise (i.e. not praise every little thing and step) also works better to make children more persistent and thus, more patient, and for them to experience more self-satisfaction, as compared to always looking for external praise. As the authors describe, brushing aside failure is also shown to be detrimental. Discussing mistakes instead and ways to improve could make the child better handle failure in the future.

The authors pepper the chapter with more personal stories, and other cases, and end up describing their anxiety at stopping the ‘you are so clever’ type of praise, and concluding that this type of praise is used by parents, and other carers, to show and infuse children with their unconditional love and support, and that this is why it felt hard to change.

I really liked this book in that it made me think about the ways I parent, but also I liked this chapter in particular because it helped me articulate, and understand why, I find some of the ways that people praise in the UK, such as the ‘good girl/boy’ or ‘clever girl/boy’, a bit uncomfortable. This is interesting because in Argentina, we mostly say ‘well done!!’ (‘muy bien’) rather than clever girl/boy, or good boy/girl. And it always struck me that this was quite unspecific and that its logical conclusion would be to think that if you don’t do it right (you don’t reach the potty in time for instance), then you are not clever or good, which is not such a good feeling. Not sure how much this conclusion is reached by children, but, what can I say, I think this way! I think this is tied, for me, with the whole ‘good girl’ thing that I want to get away from, but that is for another post. In any case, I feel the ‘well done’ seemed to be more geared towards their effort. Granted, after reading this chapter, it made me rethink the ways I praise, how much, when, which were happily converged with re-reading another parenting book that I love ‘How to talk so kids would listen and listen so kids will talk’,  which has a chapter on praise too that works very well with this chapter’s conclusions. It also helped me be more understanding with people that use this expression so much, and to, you know, let go too, knowing that I can provide something different.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t given or asked to do this reviews (I wish!), and the link to amazon is just because of convenience rather than because you should buy them there, probably better to support your local bookshop…but I am not one to say…

5 responses to “Not all forms of praise are created equal

  1. I followed your link from bluemilk and agree with your views about this book, though I had a few doubts about the rigourousness (?) of the research – the studies seemed pretty small and a fair bit of anecdotal evidence. However it made intuitive sense. I struggle with the ‘good girl’ as I seem to find myself saying it often (I have four girls) and struggle for a better way to encourage that comes naturally.

    • Hi Julie, thanks for your comment, I do agree that the evidence does not seem overwhelming, but it made sense to me. In any case, I am always wary about ‘science’ proving somehtings and consider that the Thruth. Some of the other chapters were less clear to me, but this one resonated with what I have read in other places, and with my own experience. As I said, the book ‘how to talk’ also touches this issue, and makes you think about your reactions to praise, and at least in my case, the advice they give makes sense. The ‘good gir’l is a hard one, especially if you live in the UK! I think, as everything, it depends how and when you use it… you need to find more experienced parents for some advice on this, I tend to favour, ‘well done’, but have started trying to be more descriptive and specific of what I am praising.

  2. I got here from bluemilk too and your blog is really interesting.

    I haven’t read this book but a friend has it and I must borrow it. I did want to add though that Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn is also very worthwhile, but confronting. Kohn has a problem with the use of any kind of praise at all! He cites studies that show that because praise is an extrinsic motivator it causes the person praised to lose focus on the activity for its own sake and focus instead on getting praise. So, the consequences are loss of interest in the activity, decreased risktaking due to fear of losing praise etc (he explains it much better). He advocates a different style of involvement in children’s activities that does not incorporate praise. Anyway, I recommend that book.

    • Hi Tamara, thank for your comment. I haven’t read Alfie Kohn’s book, so cannot comment on it, though it sounds interesting. I have read the same critique from montessori approaches, but for me this idea has to be balanced with what I see as the ‘natural’ (or (social?) inclination for children and adults to look at others for validation. It is true that if there is only space for external validation then it might fuck things up, as well as loads of constant praise distracts and becomes detrimental, but at the same time, I think that it is important to show them that we are happy with their achievements too, and to share the joy. I think I would feel ‘repressed’ in a way, not to give any praise! But would certainly want tips for other ways of showing encouragement.

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