Monday, February 19, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 5 (tips on effective praise)

From Ash:

I don't know about you, but the praise research I've read has left me occasionally tongue-tied when I'm around kids. I either accidentally say something I know I shouldn't ("That's terrific! You're a great kid!"), or I can't figure what to say at all. So building on our previous posts, here is the start of some tips for effectively praising.

1. Don't Offer Global Statements

If a child breaks a vase, most parents would think that the right response would be to say, “That was a bad thing to do,” not “You’re a bad child.” But we do the exact opposite for praise. When kid makes a vase, rather than breaks it, we often say "You're such a good girl! Such a talented artist!"

Compliment the making of the vase – the actual achievement. Don't turn a single event – good or bad – into a global label that the kid can't possibly live up to.

That's not to say that these identity-praise labels don’t work – they do. (One study even found that children who were described as “tidy children” became more tidy than those who were simply given a list of tidy instructions.) The problem is that the labels work too well. The label goes beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy. It goes to image-maintenance.

Studies have shown the pattern from elementary school children to college students: children go to great pains to protect their “genius” or other identity labels they’ve acquired along the way. “Smart kids” won’t ask questions that will risk making them look stupid. If they don’t succeed, they’re more likely to say they will cheat the next time. They’re aggressively competitive – more concerned about others’ performance than improving their own.

These identity-praise addicts choose less challenging tasks, so that they’re more ensured of success. And they become helpless – frozen – when they’re confronted by facts that go against their identity labels.

2. Be Sincere

I'm not saying be brutally honest – we don't all need to become the next Simon Cowell – but too many of us laugh at Paula Abdul's non-existent critiques, then we turn right around and do an unwittingly dead-on impression of her when we talk to our own kids.

Really, we can't overstate the importance that praise be sincere: it's absolutely crucial. Some parents are so intent on protecting a child’s self-image, they seem to feel that every comment they make has to be positive – even if it isn’t true. Kids want you to tell them the truth, and they can tell when you’re being insincere.

As we mentioned in our New York piece, only children younger than age seven take praise at face value. After that, children become increasingly adept at scrutinizing praise for its veracity. By high school, teens have become so used to hearing insincere praise, that they believe that those who are praised are actually lacking in ability, while those who are criticized are the real talents in a classroom.

3. Don't Use Empty Praise

Before praising, ask yourself if the praise is for a real achievement. I'm not saying never praise, or hold back the praise til your child was won the Nobel Prize. But, as New York University professor of psychiatry Dr. Judith Brook explained, praise a child for achievements that he can make at his developmental level. If your child is supposed to clean her room as part of her normal chores, then is that an achievement worth actual praise? Or will a mere acknowledgement do? If a child loads the dishwasher, is praise required, or will a simple "thank you" suffice?

As Dr. Brook warns, “I wouldn’t ever use empty praise, because, once you do that, your credibility is gone.”

And you don't just lose credibility for your praise, either. A couple scholars have found that children whose parents give them empty praise start believing that their parents simply don't understand the reality of the children's situation, and thus, the children feel that there's little point in trying to turn to them for support or an opinion in any other context.

4. Scale Back the Amount of Praise

For me at least, this is probably the hardest of all. Contrary to what you might have heard, every little thing your child does does not need to be praised. And there are real dangers in overpraise (and we're talking about in the amount of praise given and the overstatements used). First, children may become fixated on getting the praise, so that they are unmotivated by anything other than praise and rewards.

And Dr. Robert Cloninger's research compelling argues that constant praise may literally wire the brain to expect constant rewards, resulting in an inability to persist when the rewards stop coming.

Of course, a lot of parents don't see themselves as overpraising to that extent – or they say they praise constantly, but still, they insist that their kids aren't praise junkies.

Here's the other danger in overpraising – the one that I think is even more of a concern in most families – by using unrealistic or constant praise, a parent may unknowingly increase pressure on a child to perform. Children who get praised a lot believe that they constantly need to do things that merit praise. We're back to children who are more concerned with image-maintenance than growth and development.

An alternative to praise: instead of saying how great something is, just a pat-on-the-back and it's over, start a conversation with the child about her work. "Look at how you used color red instead of green for the grass. Tell me about why you did that." Again, this gets the child to consider her choices for the work, while it shows you're really interested and paying attention.

Much more to come. . . .

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Anonymous anna said...

Very interesting article. Many of the conclusions reminded me of Albert Bandura's work on self-efficacy and I was surprised not to see him referenced - especially since he has been a fixture at Stanford lo these many years.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

I've certainly read some of Bandura's work, but - because of length and clarity - thus far, we've had to focus on praising kids, almost exclusively. (Which has meant we've had to make some brutal edits: we have some wonderful research on praise and college students and adults that we really wanted to include in the New York piece, and we hated losing it - kept it in til the very last.) And we were only been able to do quick summaries of related topics, such as self-efficacy and perceived competence, even though those are topics that we're very intrigued in ourselves.

But I'm delighted that the article seems to be bringing others' scholarship to mind, and if people are interested, we've got a lot more information that we can keep addressing over time.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Braeza said...

I am quoting your work right and left. It is a long time coming and finally, it begins to put a lid on this dangerous "self-esteem" we've been promoting for children. Please, please pass us the wonderful research on praise and college students and adults. I would be oh so grateful.
I'll go google Bandura right now.

4:45 AM  
Blogger yourmama said...

I wrote the following letter to the editor after reading the 'praise article'

5:33 PM  

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