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Cartoon: mother praises daughter's report with disastrous results

Praising Your Children's Great Results Is a Mistake

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

So, your daughter comes home with her end of term report and she gets all As or 10s or 100% or whatever grading scale is the norm in your country. Do you tell her something like: "Wow honey, those are great marks! You are such an intelligent girl and Daddy and I are very proud of you"? If so, you are messing her up for life. Thanks to you, she is likely to become less motivated, accomplish less and be less creative in life than if you praise her differently.

Let me explain.

When you praise a child for her intelligence or for getting good marks as a result of her intelligence, you are praising her for what she is rather than what she is capable of; you are telling her that she has been graced by evolution, God or magic with intelligence. This is something she cannot change. It is there. Moreover, it implies that intellectual tasks, like tests, essays and presentations come easy to her. Intelligent people don't need to work at it. It comes easy.

As a result, she learns to take actions that confirm her intelligence and guarantee your praise, such as: avoiding risks where failure might make her look unintelligent; not studying difficult subjects in which her marks might be less than stellar; or not embarking upon original research which might come to nothing.

For example, imagine your  daughter gets good marks in maths and you tell her she is intelligent and how pleased you are with her marks. Next year, she can sign up for an advanced maths class that will challenge her far more than the normal level class. Chances are, she will be reluctant to sign up for the course because she knows that she may not get such great marks. The class will cover more complicated material than the normal class. Other bright kids will also be in the course. She might not get an A. But, if she takes the regular level maths class, she can be much more confident of getting that A and getting praise from you for her high mark. Moreover, this course of action will reinforce her feeling of being intelligent.

Worse, this will not be a one off incident. If you programme your child to appreciate innate ability and results over effort, she will always seek the easy way to reinforce this image. She will take the easier course of action rather than risk failure or even less than stellar results.

This is not how you want your children to grow up, is it?

Praise For Effort & Strategy

Instead of praising your child for her intelligence or marks, praise her for her effort and strategy. For example, "These are good marks and you deserve them. You've been studying hard all week for the exams. How do you feel about it?" Or, "I am really proud of you for staying off Minecraft and Facebook this week so you could focus on studying. And I see your marks have improved since last term. You're strategy and effort have really paid off, haven't they?"

Note that although you are praising the marks, you are praising the improvement that came as a result of the effort rather than the absolute value of the marks. This is important.

When you take such an approach, you do not praise your child for what she is or for her built in abilities, but rather for what she is capable of if she makes an effort. You teach her that she can accomplish a great deal if she is willing to invest intellectual effort. You also teach her the importance of strategy and planning, particularly in the second example when you recognise that your hypothetical daughter put aside pleasure temporarily in order to work at something. Compliments like this encourage developing strategies to accomplish tasks and confirm the value of temporarily putting off pleasure in favour of responsibility.

Discuss Poor Performance

Of course not all school reports are full of top marks or even improved marks. Worse, a child can sometimes put in a lot of effort, but get worse results than in the previous term.

When a child does badly, do not focus on the poor marks. Instead focus on the effort or lack thereof that led to poor marks. Also, think about how the marks compare to previous work. If the child got a "D" last term and a "C" this term, she has made improvement. So, talk about the improvement and the effort your child made to achieve it. Really, really praise the effort (assuming an effort was made, of course) as this will encourage more effort in the future. If you criticise the "C", in spite of the fact that it is an improvement that the child worked for, you will really demotivate the child. Why should she make an effort to improve if that meets with criticism from her parents?

On the other hand, if the mark is poorer than in the past, or it is first term, do not criticise the mark.  Your child already feels badly about it. Instead, ask the child why she believes she got the poor mark and what she believes she should do to improve. Talk about it. Ask her if she needs help. Discuss her answer. If she studied for days for a test and got a poor result, the issue is probably not in how much she studied, but her strategy for studying. Discuss it. Did she study the wrong material? Did she freeze during the test. Does she have difficulties retaining information? Once you have identified the problem, you can work on a strategy to overcome it. But do not immediately propose your strategy to the child. Instead ask her what she thinks she should do and work together on devising a new strategy. She needs to learn to devise her own strategies in life. 

When you take this course of action, you do two very positive things for your child. Firstly, you make it clear that she is more likely to do better next time if she devises a good strategy and makes the effort. Secondly, you make it clear that you will not give her hell for poor marks and that will make her feel more comfortable talking about poor performance with you. You make it much more likely that she will come to you to talk about problems before she gets a poor mark − and that makes it more likely that you and she can do something about it.

Strategy

Praising strategy is as important as praising effort. A useful strategy in young people is to learn to put off other pleasures, such as TV or play, in order to do homework, study or practice.

If a child can learn to delay gratification now for better rewards later, she is likely to do far better in life. Studies in the 1960s and 70s by Walter Mischel of Stanford University found that children in the seven to nine year range who were able to delay gratification (choosing whether to have one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and have two marshmallows), had significantly better life outcomes in terms of educational achievements, weight and more.

Clearly, if you encourage your child to learn to delay gratification from an early age, you are doing her a huge favour.

It is also important that children (and some parents) learn that study effort should not be measured by quantity alone. Children need to learn effective studying strategies at an early age. My eldest son is a sponge for knowledge and has always loved to read. If he was given a book in order to find one piece of knowledge, he'd read the book from cover to cover. While reading a book from  cover to cover is a good thing, it takes up precious time when doing homework, studying for an exam or simply doing an exercise. He needed to learn to put off the pleasure of reading an interesting book in order to find the critical information.

Likewise, reading material again and again, in preparation for a test, is a waste of time if the information does not stick. Encouraging a child to try different methods of studying − perhaps following your suggestions − will enable her to devise effective studying strategies for life. It will also teach her the importance of experimenting with techniques to find the most effective. Yet another important life skill.

Creativity

As noted earlier in this article, children who are praised for their intelligence or high marks are risk-averse. Being creative is about taking risks. It is trying out a new idea that might very well fail. If a child is afraid of taking risks, she will be afraid to experiment with creative ideas and is more likely to stifle her own creative thinking rather than embrace it and play with it. As a result, if you praise your kids for high marks and intelligence, you hinder their creative development.

On the other hand, if you reward your child for making an effort; praise her for devising and experimenting with strategies; and learn from failure rather than criticise it, you encourage children to be creative, to try new ideas to see if they lead to better results. (Follow this link to learn more about raising creative children).

Dealing With High Intelligence

For some reason, both of my sons are far more intelligent than their mother or I. Overall, this has been a great thing. However, it poses challenges as well. In particular, my youngest son was able to get very high marks at primary school without making much, if any, effort. This left me in something of a quandary. I didn't want to criticise his great marks, but I didn't want to praise them too much either.

In the end, I told him that while I was happy that he got good marks, I was not that impressed because I knew he did not have to try hard to get those results. On rare occasions when he struggled (a little) with a subject, such as French, and made progress, I piled on the praise.

Fortunately, he is now in a much more challenging middle school programme and has to work to get good results.

Not Just School

While I have focused on school, praising children for effort rather than results is valid for sports, competitions and any other activity in which they are evaluated. If your child wins a gold medal in a local swimming competition, do not tell her she's a great swimmer and deserves the gold. Tell her that you are proud that she put in so many hours of swimming practice and point out how it paid off: with a gold metal.

If you only praise her as being a great swimmer, you negate the value of the hours of practice, discourage future practice and discourage taking risks, such as participating in other water sports, in which she knows she will not immediately get a gold medal or even a bronze medal (and, as a result, will not win your praise − at least in her mind).

Your Effort Pays Off in Your Kids

This is a relatively small thing for you to do: learning to praise your children's efforts and strategies rather than their results. But the pay-off is incredible. Your children will perform better, be more creative and do better in life. They will learn that it is okay to take risks and they will know how to learn from their mistakes. 

They will learn how to make plans and devise strategies that lead to good results − an incredibly important ability.

They will learn to take pleasure in the effort and not just the results; and they will enjoy the results all the more because of the investment they made in the effort. And they will very likely follow your marvellous example in raising their own kids.

So, if you want to do one thing to put your children on a path towards a better future, simply learn to praise effort and strategy rather than results, intelligence and innate ability.

Do it for your kids.

Your Experiences?

What are your experiences with praising  your children? Share them below!

Sources

  1. Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck, "Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, Vol. 75, No. 1, 33-52 (Link to PDF)
  2. Judy Willis, "Praise that Discourages Children", Psychology Today Blog, June 2014
  3. Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B.; Raskoff Zeiss, Antonett "Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification" eJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 21(2), Feb 1972, 204-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0032198

Further Reading

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