What is Praise?


In a world of trophies for participation, Intelligence tests to determine ability and gold stars for drawing a dog that looks like a bird, I have often wondered how all of this is affecting our children and their desire and ability to learn.

In the July 12 issue of Scientific American Mind, Carol S. Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, wrote a provocative article, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.” Under the title she writes:

Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are (smart). More than three decades of research shows that a focus on “process”— not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life

She goes on to break down learning into two types of minds:

  1. a fixed mind-set where one believes that they are born with a certain level of ability in each area
  2. a growth mind-set where one believes it is personal effort and effective strategies that determines their ability

It was found that those with a fixed mind-set easily crumble and feel inadequate when mistakes are made. Their natural belief is if they cannot do it then they do not have an ability for it. They also are unwilling to admit when they do not know something and have little or no motivation to learn when they fail.

On the other hand, those with a growth mind-set are more likely to see mistakes as opportunities to learn and to seek out answers or solutions. They also will admit when they do not know something and ask others for information. Their primary motive is to learn.

A direct effect on how children fall into these categories is how they are praised by others. Most parents believe that praising children’s ability or intelligence will make them feel smart. But Dweck’s research shows that praising in this way “makes a child fragile and defensive.” This is not to say we should not praise our children, but rather we should be intentional of the wording of our praise. Praising the process a child uses instead “fosters motivation and confidence by focusing children on the actions that lead to success.”  When praising children it is important to focus on their “effort, strategies, focus, persistence in the face of difficulty, and willingness to take on challenges.”

This means rather than saying, “You are really smart in math,” a better choice would be, “I have noticed how hard you have been studying your math. You have taken time each day to review your problems and that paid off on your last quiz.” It is preferred not only because it reinforces the tools the child has used to accomplish something, it allows them to recognize they have used those tools.

Dweck and other researchers are “converging on the conclusion that great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift.”

So as we praise with good intentions, it appears we need to make sure we are praising hard work, the ability to ask for help, the development of strategies and specific processes in order for our children to recognize and be motivated to accomplish at their highest ability. It turns out that not only will a growth mind-set foster healthy learning in school but it will carry over into relationships and the work place for years to come.





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