Now, new research shows that too much praise for children as young as 1 to 3 can have negative repercussions down the road.
It was done by Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher, who has been studying children’s coping and resilience mechanisms for 40 years. For the last 14 of them, she’s focused on what she suspects is the culprit behind less resilient children: Praise.
Her latest research is “Parent Praise,” and it’s a longitudinal study. In it, researchers observed, and coded, praise from parents with children 14 months old to 38 months old to see if it was more person-based (“you are really smart”) or process based (“you must have tried really hard”). When the kids were 7 and 8, they checked back to see how they felt about taking risks and whether qualities like intelligence were fixed or malleable.
The process kids won.
“The parents who gave more process-praise had children who believe their intelligence and social qualities could be developed and they were more eager for challenges,” Dr. Dweck told me.
In her previous research, she’s showed that praising children for their intelligence or abilities often undermines motivation and hurts performance. Kids who are told they are smart care more about performance goals and less about learning. Kids praised for their efforts believe that trying hard, not being smart, matters. These kids are “resilient” and take more risks.
Consider this study, which she did variations on for years. Researchers give two groups of fifth graders easy tests. Group one is told they got the questions right because they are smart. Group two is told they got the questions right because they tried hard. Then they give the kids a harder test, one designed to be far above their ability. Turns out the “smart” kids don’t like the test and don’t want to do more. The “effort” kids think they need to try harder and welcome the chance to try again. The researchers give them a third test, another easy one. The “smart” kids struggle, and perform worse than they did on the first test (which was equally easy). The “effort” kids outperform their first test, and outperform their “smart” peers.
Here’s the scary part. In one variation of the study, the researchers tell the kids they’re going to give the same test at another school. They ask them to write a note to students in the other school telling them how they scored. Forty percent of the “smart” kids lie about their results, compared with 10 to 12 percent of the “effort” kids.
What I find particularly interesting about this is that I think I can pretty accurately predict who, among my colleagues, received person-based praise and who received process-based praise. Some people believe they deserve praise or promotion just for doing their jobs or for having relative seniority. Others seek out opportunity and pursue challenges. In a recent example, who do you think got a promotion? And who do you think was not happy that it wasn’t them?