New research over the last few years is indicating that the nature and quality of parental praise is as important as the presence of praise itself. Just like most activities of parenting, there are scales of quality and room for growth. No one is born a good parent; it’s important to remain open to the idea that we can always improve our parenting. This means freeing ourselves from self-castigation when we mess up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable – ready to admit an underwhelming performance and accepting of new strategies to try out.
Many of us are trained by past modeling to praise children for inherent capacities like being smart or pretty. Research is now indicating that children raised on this type of praise are more likely to end up under-achieving and more likely to give up early. Children who are given praise based on their performance, their attempts, their effort and their actions seem to grow up more resilient, more persistent, more willing to take risks and learn from their less than stellar performances.
A recent post on the Motherlode blog at the NYT in response to a NY Magazine article discusses this briefly and gives a succinct summary of some of this new research by Carol Dweck of Stanford.
The mention of Dweck’s work reminded me of the first chapter of Nurture Shock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. Here, the authors go into a bit more depth. They illustrate that a widespread parenting practice of the last few decades has been based on the presumption that convincing kids they are inherently smart will help them tackle daunting academic challenges. Actually, this kind of praise might be convincing kids to shy away from unfamiliar territory for fear of not doing well.
Dweck gives a clear summary of her results in saying, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
So what are some helpful ingredients to effective praise?
1. Praise needs to be specific, about a child’s positive actions – even just naming them – “You put a lot of effort into your homework tonight.”
2. Praise should be sincere in tone and veracity, based on a child’s effort, skill or talent.
3. Excessive praise may overwhelm intrinsic reward. Use it judiciously, or children might perform for praise alone.
4. Upon under-achievement, provide supportive action steps to improve performance. Avoid broad, empty promises like “you’ll do better next time.”
With this new research and some tweaking to your praising strategies, you can have a direct impact on your children’s resilience and perseverance, two powerful indicators of achievement.
As your children grow to be self-motivated, independent, successful young adults, feel free to take their development as sincere, specific, meaningful praise for all your parenting efforts!