The effects of praise:
What scientific studies reveal about the right way to praise kids
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Funny thing about praise.
In many cultures—-like China-—praise is rare. People worry about the effects of praise. That too much praise will inflate the ego...make people too big for their britches.
This seems to be an ancient concern.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers—-people whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our ancestors—-are famously intolerant of big egos.
It used to be that way in the West, too. But today things are different. Westerners praise each other all the time. And Western parents praise their kids all the time.
Why? Because we think that praise is going to make our kids better—more motivated, more confident, more inclined to tackle challenges.
But does it really work that way?
Well, yes. Praise can be a powerful form of encouragement. For instance, moms who praise their preschoolers for their good manners have kids with better social skills (Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).
But in some cases, praise can actually undermine your child’s motivation.
What’s the right way to praise kids?
Good answers come from Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, psychologists who have analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). They determined that praise can be a powerful motivating force if you follow these guidelines:
• Be sincere and specific with your praise
• Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change
• Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
• Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily
• Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do
• Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others
In addition, it’s important to be sensitive to your child’s developmental level.
I explain these guidelines—and the evidence supporting them—in more detail below.
Be sensitive to your child’s developmental level
Very young children thrive on praise
Babies and toddlers benefit from praise that encourages them to explore on their own. In a study of 24-month old children, researchers watched how mothers responded to their toddlers while they attempted a challenging task.
Then, these same families were invited back to the lab a year later and kids were tested again.
Researchers found that the 36-month old kids who were most likely to tackle challenges—and to persist at a task—were the ones whose mothers had praised and encouraged their independence at 24 months (Kelley et al 2000).
Older kids are more sophisticated and may interpret your praise in negative ways
Whereas very young children are likely to take your praise at face value, older kids are a different story. As kids mature, they become aware of your own possible motives for praising them. If they perceive you to be insincere, they may dismiss your praise. They may also be sensitive to being patronized or manipulated (see below).
Be sincere and specific
Insincere praise may harm self-esteem and damage relationships
Obviously, kids won’t feel very encouraged by praise if you seem insincere.
But insincere praise isn’t just ineffective. It can be damaging.
Kids might think you feel sorry for them or that you are trying to be manipulative. Insincere praise might also send the message that you don’t really understand your child (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
Do these problems arise for very young children? Probably not. But once your child becomes mature enough to question your motives, she may become sensitive to the effects of insincere praise.
To prevent the appearance of insincerity, avoid frequent, effusive praise. And avoid praise that is sweeping or general. Kids are more likely to doubt it.
Praise kids for traits they have the power to change
It might seem that praising your child’s intelligence or talent would boost his self-esteem and motivate him.
But it turns out that this sort of praise backfires.
Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated the effect in a series of experimental studies: When we praise kids for their ability, kids become more cautious. They avoid challenges.
It’s as if they are afraid to do anything that might make them fail and lose your high appraisal.
Kids might also get the message that intelligence or talent is something that people either have or don’t have. This leaves kids feeling helpless when they make mistakes. What’s the point of trying to improve if your mistakes indicate that you lack intelligence?
For these reasons, it’s better to avoid praising kids for ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly change—like their level of effort or the strategies they use. For more information on the effects of praise on intellectual performance, click here.
Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
Some praise is merely about making a judgment “Good job!” Other praise provides information about what the recipient did right: “I like the way you begin your essay by describing the problem and explaining why it’s important.”
The latter is called descriptive praise, and it is thought to be more helpful than general praise. When you give a child descriptive praise, you don’t just tell him he’s doing well. You give him specific feedback, and you tell him something about your standards.
But there is an important caveat, argue Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper (2002). The standards you convey should be reasonable. If you over-praise a child (e.g. “You’re amazing! I’ve never heard anyone play the piano better!”), you may send the wrong message. Your child might conclude that your standards are superhuman. How can he possibly live up to that? Praise that conveys unrealistically high standards can become a source of pressure, and make kids feel inadequate.
Beware of praising kids for achievements that come easily
If you praise kids for easy tasks, kids may conclude there is something wrong: Either you’re too dumb to realize how easy the task is, or you think the kids are dumb (Meyer 1992).
Such interpretations are unlikely to occur to younger children. But as kids mature, they become more sophisticated about the social meaning of praise.
One experiment presented American kids (aged 4 to 12 years) with a videotaped scenario depicting students at work. The scenario showed two students solving a problem. Each performed equally well, but only one student was praised.
The kids who watched the program were asked to judge the students’ effort and ability.
Kids of all ages agreed that the praised student tried harder. But the older kids also inferred that the praised student had lower ability (Barker and Graham 1987).
These reactions might be culturally specific, however. When a similar experiment was conducted on Chinese students, older subjects did not conclude that the praised person was inferior in ability (Salili and Hau 1994).
The difference might reflect Chinese attitudes about praise and intelligence.
In China, praise is rarely given (Salili and Hau 1994). As a result, people may be less likely to infer that praise is insincere or patronizing. In addition, Chinese people are more inclined to view intellectual achievements as a product of effort (Salili and Hau 1994; Stevenson and Lee 1990).
Beware of over-praising kids for doing things they like anyway
It’s okay to praise kids for doing what they like to do. But be careful not to go overboard—particularly with older kids. When you praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually reduce their motivation (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
For example, suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli.
Does this sort of thing really happen? It’s been well-documented in cases where people are given tangible rewards each time they perform a particular behavior (e.g., giving your child some money each time he eats broccoli). The feedback appears to re-set a person’s attitude (Lepper and Henderlong 2000).
There’s less research showing that social rewards—like praise—can produce the same effect. However, a recent brain study reveals that social rewards (like praise) and tangible rewards (like money) activate the same regions of the brain (Izuma et al 2008). And a food-tasting experiment performed on children found that praise, like tangible rewards, made kids like a food less (Birch et al 1984).
But the key point seems to be that praise must be given every time, so that kids expect to be praised for the behavior .
When praise is unexpected or spontaneous, it remains a powerful motivating force.
So this doesn’t mean we can’t—or shouldn’t—praise our children for good behavior or a job well done. But suggests we should be cautious about overriding our kids’ natural sources of motivation.
Avoid praise that compares your child to others
At first blush, it might seem like a good idea to praise kids for out-performing their peers. After all, research has shown that such social-comparison praise enhances a child’s motivation and enjoyment of a task (see review in Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
But there are at least two big problems with social-comparison praise.
Problem One: Social-comparison praise is only motivating as long as kids continue to finish first.
If their competitive edge slips, kids are likely to lose motivation.
In essence, kids who are accustomed to social-comparison praise become poor losers.
Consider this experiment on American 4th and 5th graders (Corpus et al 2006). Kids were given a set of puzzles to complete and received either
• social-comparison praise
• mastery praise (i.e., comments about how the child had mastered the task)
• no praise at all
Next, kids completed a second task. This time they were left without clear feedback about how they’d done.
How did this uncertainty affect each child’s motivation?
It depended on what kind of praise kids had received earlier. Those who had received social comparison praise suffered a loss of motivation. But kids who had received mastery praise showed enhanced motivation.
In other words, a history of social-comparison praise backfires the minute kids stop hearing that they’ve outperformed their peers.
Problem Two: Social-comparison praise teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal.
When kids decide that the goal is to outperform other kids, they lack intrinsic motivation for a task. Work is only interesting insofar as it permits them to show that they are the best.
Even worse, these kids are so wrapped up in maintaining their competitive standing that they avoid challenges and opportunities to learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison praise doesn’t prepare kids for coping with failure. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, these kids respond by feeling helpless (Elliot and Dweck 1988).