We all do it. We praise our kids for their smarts, their athleticism or any other various achievement that they conquer. How much praising is too much? Is there such a thing as over-praising? Do our words of encouragement help them succeed or hinder their motivation? In the book ‘NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children,” authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, cite the work of renowned motivation psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck, to posit that focusing praise on ability over effort can have an inverse affect on children.
“Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”
…..Dweck discovered that those who think innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. ‘I am smart’, the kids’ reasoning goes; ‘I don’t need to put out the effort.’ Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.”
I had read NurtureShock right around the time my oldest started kindergarten. These passages above stood out to me as a reminder that how I handled praising my kids, could impact their motivation to succeed at school. I have always believed that kids are on to us and our fake praise. We don’t mean for it to be fake because we genuinely love the innate awesomeness of our kids, but they know when we are pumping them up without cause. I kept imagining my son on American Idol in 2020 being one of those unfortunate contestants who clearly can’t sing, but because was never told otherwise, he would now find out the truth of his abilities in a very public and very humiliating way. For the record, being nearly 11 years old now, he thankfully knows he can’t carry a tune.
When he first began to get into his homework, and it’s still crazy to me that a kindergartener even has homework, I tried to be mindful of what I said to him. I made sure to praise his effort and tried to be as honest with him as I could. For example, as he begin to learn to write, it wasn’t good (to this day, I consider myself lucky if I can correctly decipher his daily homework planner). I didn’t call him out, but I didn’t say it looked great when it did not. I made sure instead to comment on how hard I thought he was trying and that I was proud of his effort.
Kids know when something doesn’t ring true. I remember my own mom using the word ‘interesting’ an awful lot when I presented her with my childhood artwork. ‘Interesting’ does not translate into talented, awesome artist. She never deterred me from ‘my art’ or made me feel bad about my lack of artistry, but I do appreciate that she did not falsely tell me that what I made was incredible. I too, could have ended up as an unfortunate American Idol contestant but she also never told me I could sing beautifully, because I can’t.
I think it all boils down to honesty and respect. Be honest with your kids about their strengths, make sure you praise their effort and when you are faced with some less than stellar aspect of your child’s ability, be respectful and guide them through it. Life will teach them where they excel, and having grounded, honest support from a parent is more helpful than a parent that praises at every turn.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW and Parent
Bronson, P. and Merryman, A. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. 2009 New York, New York. Hachette Book Group.