Thursday, February 15, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 4

From Ash:

One of the things that Po and I found so compelling about the praise research was the idea that so much of what is passed off as praise isn't really praise at all. Instead of being a genuine compliment, praise is frequently a tool of manipulation – a way of controlling someone. That's particularly true for children. We often use it to control a child's performance or the others who have yet to deserve our praise.

A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids... up til a few weeks ago, that is....) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that's atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, "That's very neat: you should write all of your papers like this." Even if it's meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that's not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child's performance.

Here's what is going on. While the first part of the sentence was positive, rather than focusing on that success, the latter part of the sentence ("You should write all like this") was negative, doubly-so. First, rather than simply focusing on the present achievement, the second half of the sentence reminds the child about all the past mistakes. Second, it's an expression of pressure to continue at this level in the future. But the kid may think that the work he just completed was very difficult, and he doubts he can live up to these new expectations.

Even worse, a child who suddenly wrote more legibly did it on his own volition. But if the praiser qualifies the praise with the expectation of future performance, now if the child continues to perform, he's not doing it because he wanted to: he's doing it to fulfill the praiser's expectation. Basically, the whole exchange kills the kid's intrinsic motivation to improve. Furthermore, studies have shown that children's performance actually may go down: they will even intentionally underperform, just to show that they refuse to follow the attempted control. In other words, yes, they do badly just to spite you.

The better thing to have said was, "This is really neat," and left it at that. That way, the kid sees the praise, and he'll want to replicate what he's done well to get more of that – believing that he's done so because he wanted to. Not because he was forced to.

Another example of controlling praise is when it is used to control others' behavior – for example, when Timmy is praised for working hard while others are not. "Can everyone see Timmy? Timmy, that's great," or even worse, "I wish everyone was like Timmy."

Of course, rather than trying to emulate him, everyone else hates Timmy.

And studies have shown that this sort of public praise can harm children who are praised as well: embarrassed at being publicly singled out, the praised kids actually do worse after this – because they want to prove publicly that they are not a teacher's pet or favorite.

Surveys of college studies found similar results: when asked if they would want to be publicly recognized in their classes for high grades, most said an emphatic "No," – they were afraid it would make them become a target of their peers.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comments as well as the article clarified my thoughts and my son's actions. My son was identified as "extremely gifted" early. To my surprise, he resisted the label. When he had the chance to enter the extremely gifted program that few were invited into, as a fourth grader, he bristled. He didn't want to do it. Now, as a college freshman who received perfect SAT scores, he is at a school where peer pressure forbids mentioning SAT scores or class rank. I am grateful for your work on this subject. Julieta

12:30 PM  
Blogger debbyj said...

After reading the blog and seeing the report on Good Morning America, I started thinking about a program being used in the school district I recently retired from in South Carolina. I know the last thing people want to embrace is another sure fire education program. Having said that, let me say that this program addresses many of the things recently mentioned here about praise, achievement, brain compatible learning, etc. It's a program called the ITI Model, and it's founder is a woman named Susan Kovalik. You can learn more about this program and the research behind it at the following URL:

All I can say is, it has made a differece in the learning of the children in my old school district.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

It is really great that you guys are creating such a buzz on this topic, but is it possible you aren't aware of Alfie Kohn's great work? He covers praise extensively in his book Punished by Rewards and has published many magazine articles on the topic. He sees praise as almost inherently manipulative (and not at all the same as communicating unconditional love). I think he may even have coined several of the phrases you use, like "praise junkies," yet I wonder if you don't see it as important to reference him.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

We're certainly aware of Mr. Kohn's work, but we didn't specifically reference him for several reasons. First, Carol's research is based on the message sent by praise. Even praise that is meant sincerely. But Mr. Kohn's work really leads to a discussion about the amount of praise being used, and while we touched on that briefly, again, what's startingly about Carol's research is that the kids' response was based on a single sentence. Most parents we talked to knew other parents who overpraised, but no one saw themselves doing it. So it was too easy to obsolve themselves of the problem. But no one could say that they'd never even said a single sentence of praise. And while Kohn's not alone in seeing praise as used manipulatively, but we wanted to address even benevolent praise's effects. Also, as I mentioned in an earlier post, there are debates about rewards and praise, and their effects, and we didn't want to confuse the issue: we already had so much to cover in a the length of the piece we had.

7:29 AM  
Blogger nir said...

This is another way America shoots itself in the foot: shaming those who succeed. Instead of feeling pleased at doing well, schools breed a feeling of being different, odd, "brainiac", "mad scientist", "nerd", "geek", "whiz", "teacher's pet", what have you. No wonder children don't want to succeed, when they are humiliated, singled out, and assaulted by their peers for their success?

I'd like to see how other countries fared in this study, ones who have outstripped the US in academic achievement. I'd be willing to bet that this culture of being "weird" if you learn the material and excel in schoolwork doesn't exist there.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is very interesting (and given my own experience, it does strike a cord). The problem is that now this too will become a (new) way of manipulating our children to become better achievers.
The deeper issue to face is the way we value achievements of individuals (and our need to control our children's environment as a result of this appreciation). It is not easy to strike the right balance between appreciation of achievements and other values (being a good caring person involved in society, being an honest thinker for the sake of it, doing the right thing because it is right, and not for praise or for developing a righteous self). We are, and are raising, individuals, beings who look first at their own wellbeing, that in virtue of their achievements contribute to society, and not members of society that in virtue of being members of and contributing to society are achieving something.

6:26 PM  

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