Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (December 28, 2013)
“What a beautiful drawing!”
“You’re so smart for getting an A in your test!”
Everyone loves praise. Who doesn’t want to be told how amazing they are or how wonderful their work is? When I’ve given praise to kids, I’ve seen them beam with a smile and walk off afterwards with a spring in their step. And it feels good to have made someone else happy. So I love doling out compliments to children. But as adults, we have to be cautious about how we give praise to children.
Many articles have come out recently that quote the research of Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford. Dr. Dweck’s research is on the perils and promise of praise and the effect that it can have on children. She talks about how giving children praise in a way that highlights result and not effort actually deters them from trying hard.
When giving praise on the outcome of an action, such as the good grade of a test, the artwork painted, a good game played, then children feel like only the result of their action is being commended. This may lead them to feel like they have to perform every time and that there’s also a fear of failure or disappointment. Whereas, if the praise is given for the effort, then there is a motivation to put more effort in the following time to get better results.
Praise also affects how a child views his/her own intelligence. For some children, they think that how smart they are in something is static and can’t be changed. In those situations, they don’t try doing things they don’t think they are ‘smart’ in and only focus on the things they are ‘smart’ at doing. However, with students like these, if the focus is taken off the end-product (the output), then they slowly realise that with effort, the outcome can be affected. They soon realise that their ‘smartness’ is actually like a muscle, one that can be strengthened with practice and use.
This type of praise is especially important with children that are in school systems that label them as being ranked a certain number in the class according to performance or have to take IQ tests that tell them where they are ‘on the curve’.
I remember when I was 6 years old, I struggled tremendously in Math at school. I just really struggled with juggling all the different numbers and couldn’t wrap my mind around how the numbers could be manipulated to make new ones. In my struggle, my mum then tried to help me and struggled to teach me. When she went to a parent-teacher meeting to meet my class teacher, and asked my teacher how she could help me improve in Math (and other areas), my teacher told her, “there’s nothing you can do. That’s just the way she is”. My mother was devastated as you can imagine. At the age of 6, I was labeled as someone who wasn’t smart in Math.
As I changed schools and encountered different teachers that gave me praise and encouragement for my effort, I started to realise that my future in Math was not doomed. There were teachers that explained things to be in a way that I could understand better and then praised me for thinking things through and working hard on equations. Later in high school, I chose to take Math as my exam subjects and ended up doing better in Math than many other subjects.
What I learnt is what Carol Dweck says – if praise if given for effort, it encourages the student to try hard, be motivated and achieve more than what was thought possible.
So some practical suggestions would be to substitute praise phrases. For example:
“What a beautiful painting” => “I really like the colours you used in your painting”
“Well done for winning” => “Well done for trying your best out on the football field today!”
“You’re so smart for getting an A” => “I’m so proud of you for studying so hard for your test. It paid off!”
So next time your child does well, think twice before saying ‘Good job’. There’s a lot more you could say.