The Way We Praise Matters, Even For Babies

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Most of us have probably heard the advice of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck regarding how we should praise our kids: praise their effort (“I like how hard you worked on that drawing!”) instead of their talent or intelligence (“You are such a good artist!”)

Now Dweck is back with more research, showing that the way we praise matters even for babies and toddlers. Brooke Donald of Stanford University reports:

“In a new study, Dweck, with graduate students Sarah Gripshover and Carissa Romero, found that the kind of praise parents give their babies and toddlers influences the child’s motivation later on. It also plays a role in children’s beliefs about themselves and their desire to take on challenges five years later.

The research, published online in the journal Child Development, is the first to analyze parent praise in a real-world setting. Previous studies have relied on experiments done in the lab. ‘We’ve seen before that process praise, or praising effort, increases motivation and encourages strategies for handling failure, but no one had asked how this really works in a natural setting,’ Dweck said.

For this study, researchers analyzed video of mothers interacting with their children at 1, 2 and 3 years of age. The scholars tallied the kind of praise each mother gave to her child and the amount, paying particular attention to the proportion of the praise that was directed at the child’s effort, such as ‘good throw,’ versus praise for the child personally, such as ‘you’re so good at baseball.’

Five years later, when the children were 7 and 8 years old, the researchers interviewed the children, asking questions about their mindset. For example, ‘How much would you like to do math problems that are very easy so you can get a lot right?’

Toddlers who had heard praise commending their efforts were more likely as older children to prefer challenges than those who heard praise directed at them personally, the study found.

‘Saying “You’re great, you’re amazing”—that is not helpful,’ Dweck said. ‘Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing. It’s better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing.’

Toddlers who heard praise directed at actions also were more likely to believe later on that abilities and behavior could change and develop. ‘What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with,’ Dweck said. The amount of praise didn’t have an effect, the study found. It was more about the percentage of process praise compared to person praise.

Researchers also noted that parents praised the efforts of boys more than girls. Later, boys were more likely to try more challenging pursuits, the study found.

Researchers said their findings could help parents and early childhood educators guide children toward a mindset that fosters the value of working hard, confronting challenges and learning how to deal with failure.” (Read more here.)

Really interesting that even very young children apparently respond to “process praise” and “person praise” by developing different attitudes toward effort and failure.

Also very interesting that parents praise boys’ efforts more than girls’. I wonder what that’s about? Perhaps we tend to focus on what boys do, and —unfortunately—on how girls look (“You’re so pretty,” “Those are such cute shoes!”)

What do you think?


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5 Responses to “The Way We Praise Matters, Even For Babies”

  1. Gretchen says:

    I love Carol Dweck – I first read about her work in Nurtureshock. (although with my daughter we try to stay all the way over in Alfie Kohn territory and not be “praising” at all – I do reflect back “You did it. You worked so hard, and tried, and you did it.”) I really like the program she has set up for older kids online to teach them about fixed vs. growth mindset – I think it really benefit older kids with confidence issues.

    My husband and I actively work at encouraging our 3 yo to try challenges – her quirky process usually involves saying “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” at the very most challenging part of what she’s doing AS she’s working through it herself and just about conquered it. Then she gets through it and finishes and we tell her “You tricked us. You said you couldn’t do it, but you did it!” and she laughs and thinks this is hilarious.

    The thing about boys and girls is interesting-I think a lot of this micro interaction stuff we unconsciously do with our kids is the root of a lot of gender differences – it’s nature AND nurture.

    I remember in Intro to Psych as a college freshman seeing a video of a study of how mothers interacted differently with boy babies and girl babies in face to face interaction – with boys the moms would emulate the faces the baby boys made and follow their lead and with girls they would make a different face to try to get them to follow. In some ways, this conveyed to the girls that they needed to conform socially and boys learned that they were initiators. I had this in mind when I had my daughter and was conscious of making sure I followed faces she made as well as initiating new ones.

    Also, I don’t know if it’s ever been written about on this blog, but Lise Eliot’s “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” was packed with information about biological and nurture differences in boys and girls.

  2. Mary says:

    Oh, Annie. Having raised a gaggle, I don’t want to analyze this! LOL
    Thank you for sharing. My grand kids will be better people because of it! : )

  3. janine says:

    Saying “You’re great, you’re amazing”—that is not helpful,’ Well it might also depend on how it’s said. If it’s said in an offhand way where it’s clear that the parent paid little or no attention to the achievement, then of course it isn’t helful. Maybe focussing on effort shows in and of itself that the parent is paying attention nad that’s what helps.

  4. I agree that specific praise is best, such as “I’m really impressed with how well you are reading that book.”

    However, I believe it can also be helpful to say things like “You’re amazing.” I tell my son regularly that he’s amazing, wonderful, brilliant…But he’s all of these things whether he’s reading the book well or not—simply because he’s who he is.

    So how about this for an idea. Your child does something like drop milk all over the floor, you gasp at the milk in fake horror and say “You are amazing, now we can learn how to clean the milk up properly?” Just an idea.

  5. Leah Davies says:

    What interesting research! It would be helpful for parents of young children to learn to use “process praise” rather than “person praise.”

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