Thursday, February 22, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 8 (tips on effective praise, con't)

From Ash:

Okay, one more, specifically on praise tips. After this post, we're going to then return to some of the issues raised by praise, rewards, self-esteem, etc., on a broader, more thematic level. Which I'm really looking forward to– just some fascinating ideas we can't wait to share. (If you're saying, "No, Mars needs more praise tips," well, I'm sure there will more along the way. Just not necessarily in a list like this. So stick around – I promise, the other stuff will be well-worth reading.)

12. Don't Praise Undeserved Success


One more that I'm probably guilty of with my tutoring kids. If a child gets an "A" but he didn't work for it, that's still not time for a lot of praise. (Dr. Dweck would probably say no praise at all.) Instead, the answer to that should be "That's good, but it wasn't enough of a challenge for you. Let's go find something you can learn from."

I think the hard part here may be knowing when a kid really applied himself or not. You wouldn't want not to praise a kid who worked hard, by saying, "Here's something even harder to do." That would make him feel like he could never do enough. But if it's clear that the kid didn't apply himself, then, I guess that's the time to challenge him further.

13. Know Your Praise Audience

I admit that this is ridiculously obvious, but don't forget to consider the kid you're talking to when figuring out how and when to praise – how have they already responded to praise, are they self-conscious, etc. Consider their ages: remember that a younger child takes your praise at face-value, but as the child ages, praise may become increasingly suspect. By the time the kid's a teenager, no praise at all – just straight unadorned feedback – may be more effective than actual words of praise. (I know we've said that before, but that just continues to blow me away.) Also consider how already sensitive they are, or aren't, to peer-groups/social-standing – how will your praise affect that? (That's one we haven't yet explored in substance, but we will later).

14. Avoid Praise-Inflation

Since our piece came out last week, I've seen a lot of posts where people are relaying a praise horror story – where a parent who effusively praised a kid for doing nothing. I think the real problem with this praise for no achievement is that it will likely force the parents into constantly escalating their praise – they've got to up the ante when and if the kids actually achieve something worthy of praise. By time the kid's still pretty young, they'll have used up all the superlatives – how will they communicate their approval, then?

Also, inflated praise may distort the kid's view of the quality of his work – because the parents are raving about something that isn't necessarily worth that level of commendation.

The Praise Uber-Tip: Be Honest

One of the toughest things that Po and I have dealt with whenever we've talked about praise tips is the fact that a lot of them start with the word "Don't" – e.g., don't overpraise, don't confuse praise with encouragement. In fact, most of the articles I've seen that give advice on effective praising usually seem to be more a list of things to stop doing, than constructive things to do. I think that goes back to the reality that so much of our praise has an agenda – using praise to control for future behavior, etc.

And well, I think a lot of time praise is conversational filler – a slightly more eloquent version of "um" and "er." Praise is the quickest, easiest response to something a kid – anyone, really – does. As we were writing our piece, I kept thinking about the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" – but the truth is that you have to know someone really well to be comfortable with silence. So we praise.

Really, I think if you're stuck in a given situation, and you're uncertain as to what to say – err on honesty. I think that these specifics are helpful – that's why I've been writing about them – but I think at the core of a lot of them is a call to be honest: if that's your guidepost, then you're probably at least half-way there.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 7 (tips on effective praise, con't)

From Ash:

Another post on "praise tips" – and I'll do one more, a short one after this (I was hoping this would be the last one, but it got long). After that, we'll go back to discussing other interesting aspects of praise, self-esteem, and other related issues.

9. Timing is Everything

I don't think I've ever heard a parent consider the timing of praise – I know I didn't, at least, not consciously – but the studies show it's a very big issue.

In one of Po's and my favorite studies, college students were given a video game to play. While they were playing, a research would come in to praise them for how well they were doing. Once the researcher had done that, immediately, the students wouldn't play as well. There had been previous studies that had found similar results, and some of those had put forth a theory that once you've achieved some praise, you don't put quite as much effort into something; that's why you don't do as well. That idea has been supported in other studies; however, in this one, done by scholars including Roy Baumeister, they figured out a way to test that part of the theory as well.

And what they found was that the college students were trying just as hard after they'd received the praise – they were just not doing as well. After ruling out most of the other explanations for why that could be, Dr. Baumeister's team eventually came to conclude that the mere act of praise made the students more self-conscious of themselves, more aware that they were being watched and judged. And that heightened self-awareness meant they concentrated less on the task, and more on the others' judgment – the end result being that they didn't perform as well, post-praise.

It's amazing to me how little it takes for people to start worry about image-maintenance. But this is a "tips" post, so let's consider how to apply this research when working with your kids.

Simply put – please hold your applause until the very end.

Don't interrupt a kid who's working really hard to tell him, "You're working hard." Don't cheer, "Way to go, Suzie! We love you!" when she made the first basket at the free-throw line and still has another one to go.

Wait til they're finished, then praise. Interrupting them in the middle will make them concentrate on your opinion, rather than what they need to focus on.

10. Avoid Praising in Public

I mentioned before about how praise is often mis-used to control other's behavior, and how that can backfire. But even if that isn't what's going on, be very careful giving praise in public.

Students are enormously self-conscious, and they're very concerned that praise may make them a target – be it a target for ridicule, or relying on his notes instead of taking your own. If college students are given the opportunity to be singled out in class for a high grade, studies say they'd rather not be. They'd like to know they got the highest grade, but they don't necessarily want anyone else to know.

It's to the point that those who desire public praise – that starts bringing in concerns of narcissism.

11. Don't Praise To Avoid Giving Criticism or Addressing Failure

"Kids can take criticism," said Dr. Baumeister. They like feedback. You don't have to be mean. But you can be truthful.

So for parents who say, "So, you lost the soccer game, you're a good reader," that's a Bad Idea: you're teaching the children that they should only do that which comes easy for them. And that being good at something is all that is important to you.

But beyond that, I think that one of the most powerful comments I read or heard while we were researching praise was Dr. Jennifer Crocker's observation that if you only talk in terms of praise, and never address mistakes or failure, you're sending a message that failure is so terrible, that you can't even acknowledge it. But life's about learning from mistakes.

I was surfing through some of the discussion boards on the New York piece, and I saw that one mom had decided to do some sort of extreme form of positive reinforcement. She only pays attention to what her kids do that she likes; she simply pretends the other stuff never happened and ignores it entirely. She says it's working, but how can a child grow, if he believes he's supposed to never make mistakes or that the appropriate response to them is to pretend them out of existence?

One more "tips" to come . . . .

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 6 (tips on effective praise, con't)

From Ash:

More tips on effective praising.

5. Be Specific

I know we touched on this briefly before, but I thought I'd go into well, specifics, to show you more of what that means.

For example, if you saw that your daughter did an exceptionally good job of cleaning her room, don't walk into the family room to just say, "You're a great kid." She has no idea that that's in reference thinking to her newly-pristine room. So tell her exactly what she did that deserved your praise. Don't make her guess. Because she can always guess wrong. (She could easily think your "great kid" praise applies to something she's doing right then – like watching TV instead of doing her homework.)

The more specific your praise, the better. When a child hands you a story he's written, rather than the global praise, innate ability compliment, "You're a good writer," say something more to the effect of, "I like the way you introduced his character in your story – it's very clear that he's who the story's about."

Hearing these sorts of remarks, children learn to focus on how actions are under their control, rather than attributing achievements to an innate ability they do or don’t have. And they understand exactly what they did right. Now, you haven't just given them an ego-boost, you've given them constructive feedback that they can remember to apply in the future.

Specific comments also show the child that your opinion is sincere – very important – and that you're really seriously considering her work.

6. Praise the Process

In Carol Dweck's parlance, what is important is to use "process praise," rather than "person praise." That means tell a kid exactly what he did to deserve your praise. It is the effort he made, but you can also praise the strategies he chose, his concentration-level, the decisions he made. "It was a good idea to finish reading the chapter before playing video games, instead of stopping in the middle." "I noticed you paid attention to the coach through the whole game."

Note that it's very important to know that Dweck's research focused on complimenting of intelligence versus effort; that's because those were the two clearest things they could test for – dramatically opposing concepts, one relating to innate ability while the other related to autonomous control.

But Dr. Dweck and others do not think that effort is the only thing a child should be praised for.

Conversely, if effort is all that's ever praised, a child who worked very hard studying for a test may respond just as poorly to a bad grade as one who's praised for intelligence: the effort-praised child may say that he worked as hard as he could, and still he didn't succeed, so what's the point of continuing?

That's why it's vital to also praise those strategies, decisions, and other aspects of his work.

7. Don't Connect Praise with Promises of Future Success

At the same time, and sort of insurance against the above "I tried my hardest" scenario, make sure that you don't connect praise with promises of future success. As NYU's Dr. Judith Brook explained, if a child studied really hard before a test, compliment him on the studying, but don't add "...and I'm sure you'll do well."

Dr. Brook says she sees the praise-made promise turn sour in her med students who build each other up before a test, and are then stunned when they didn't get the "A" they thought was in the bag. She even sees this with physicians and patients: doctors promising cancer patients full-recovery when it's just too uncertain.

Remember – praise is for achievements that have actually been accomplished, not those to come, which brings us to –

8. Don't Confuse Praise with Encouragement

This is one I myself may have been the most guilty of: I mix my praise with encouragement. I tutor kids who are years behind in their reading and math levels, and I'm so afraid they'll give up. I know they never hear anything positive at home or school, so I've been a cheerleader to make up for that.

So when a kid refused to do a homework assignment or got stuck because it was too hard, I (used to) say, "You're smart; I know you can do this." Obviously, the "you're smart" was a problem, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, the combined praise-encouragement gives a child praise for past performance, but conditions that praise upon future, continued performance.

But the other problem with my reply is that this wasn't the time for praise at all. This was time just for encouragement. Rather than B.S.ing the kid with an empty attempt at boosting his self-esteem, the better thing to have said is, "Honey, I know it seems hard, but we'll work on it together. I think if you work hard, you can get this," or "Just do what you can, and if you're stuck, we'll figure out where you got lost," or even just "You can do it."

No praise. Just letting him see that I recognize his concerns, with some encouragement so that he doesn't give up. Again, sincerity is crucial – and since I've said that I understand and value his concerns (I didn't dismiss them with a pish-posh "You're too smart to be struggling,"), he may even remember that when he has a real problem he wants to talk about.

Still more to come . . . .

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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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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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How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 3

From Ash:

Po and I are so delighted by the response our New York piece is having, and I just had to share some of it with you. Po and Carol Dweck were on Good Morning, America this morning, and they're tentatively scheduled to be guests on tomorrow's NPR show On Point, while I'll be talking with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.

But what's been really exciting to see are the conversations that have been going on on various blogs, discussion boards, etc. The Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe picked it up: writers in Jersualem and Milan – and I'm not sure what the German comments are, but I'm hoping they're nice.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 2

From Po & Ash:

When researching praise for our New York article, one of the first things that we needed to understand was the concept of what exactly was praise, and what was it supposed to do accomplish. Essentially, praise is a communication of a warm, enthusiastic response.

But here's where it gets tricky. Is praise a reward? Is saying "Good job, Honey" for an "A" on an exam the same as handing a kid an iTunes gift-card? There are both physiological and psychological factors that need to be taken into account to answer that question.

Each of us, when we are growing up, develops our own motivation personality. Just as you never forget how to ride a bike, parts of your brain never forget what is was like to learn to ride a bike. In our brains is the reward center, the nucleus accumbens. When we learn to do hard things, (ride a bike, earn an A grade, learn to read) this nucleus accumbens gets lit up with dopa. Our brain records what kind of rewards were present at the time - how did I get that dopa? And we kinda wire our brains to expect those same mix of rewards in the future - how will I get more dopa?

Lead by University of Rochester's Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, there is an influential school of scholarship on motivation. Deci and Ryan have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn't necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry's any indication, it's perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults' intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so emphemral, and inherently out of one's control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children's intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation's love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear. Some of that has to do with the fact that so much of children's behavior is directed by parents and teachers – it's harder to parse out what actually a child wants to do and what he's doing because he's told to do so. Or that he was told to do something so frequently, that he's still echoing that earlier instruction.

But there are some studies that give clues as to the way recognition affects children's motivations. For example, in one study, the findings were actually an accident. Under the supervision of a researcher, children were given activities to do. The kids were having a good time playing, but then the researcher had to leave the room. When he returned, he discovered that the kids had stopped everything: they had just waited for his return. So the researcher left the room again. Again, the kids stopped everything – just waiting for him to come back. It wasn't a fluke. They changed the study, kept leaving the room, and realized the kids weren't playing because they enjoyed themselves – they were playing because they were getting attention.

Even those who haven't yet found praise to affect children's intrinsic motivation still look at the effect of praise on adults – the damage to motivation that can stem from too-frequent or praise as a means of control – and use this for a note of caution. They warn that recommendations calling for increased praise in educational settings are misguided and need to be reconsidered.

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How Not to Talk to Your Kids - Part 1

From Po:

Today, Ashley and I unveil our cover story for New York Magazine, "Praise is Dangerous: How Not to Talk to Your Kids."

In the piece, we tackle how parents praise their children – specifically, the idea that, according to a Columbia University survey, 85 percent of parents believe it's important to praise your children's intelligence.

In a very quick overview of what we've discovered, we've found that research by professor Carol S. Dweck and others directly challenges that belief that praising for intelligence is beneficial to children's development. (Actually, it turns out there are even scholars who are making a persuasive case that any praise at all can be damaging, regardless the context.)

Instead, Dweck's research shows that praise for intelligence can be harmful. Kids praised for intelligence can do well, but only while they succeed.

Once they fail, however, it's a whole other story. Because children praised for intelligence attribute their earlier success to their innate abilities. Thus they don't know how to respond to their new failure. Rather than seeing failure as a temporary event, they believe that their failure is proof that they didn't actually have the innate abilities they had been previously lauded for.

Note that there's two separate ideas twined together right there. One is the aspect of praise itself, and how it's used (often overused). The other idea is how praising intelligence (telling a kid "You're so smart") teaches the idea that intelligence is an innate ability - i.e., a fixed ability. You're either smart or you aren't.

Over the next few posts, we'll have much more to say on the topic of praise including: how praise is so often mis-used (it's not really praise at all); how praise affects children's motivation; and do's and don'ts on praising your own children.

Carol Dweck is a charming scholar. Though she recently joined the faculty at Stanford, most of her life has been spent in New York; she was raised in Brooklyn, went to college at Barnard, and taught at Columbia for decades. This reluctant new Californian just got her first driver’s license – at age sixty. Other Stanford faculty have joked that she’ll soon be sporting bright colors in her couture, but so far Dweck sticks to New York black – black suede boots, black skirt, trim black jacket. All of which matches her hair and her big black eyebrows – one of which is raised up, perpetually, as if in disbelief. Tiny as a bird, she uses her hands in elaborate gestures, almost like she’s holding her idea in front of her, physically rotating it in three-dimensional space. Her speech pattern, though, is not at the impatient pace of most New Yorkers. She talks almost like she were reading a children’s lullaby, with gently punched-up moments of drama.

Read our piece and enjoy learning from her research.

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