Who would have thought that praise might limit the growth of a child?
Praise is always a good thing, right?
It has to be right to be saying “Well done, you are really good at maths!” or “You came top of the class – fantastic!“, or “An A grade – well done!”
Well, no. It is not.
Not according to Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
It seems that praising a child for their intelligence or attainment may be absolutely the wrong thing to do.
A child who is praised for their attainment (an A grade, winning a race, coming top in a test...) or their apparent ability, will pick up on this and understand that they are appreciated and praise-worthy because of this attainment.
When it comes to approaching further challenges, no wonder the child appears reluctant. Why risk turning success into failure? Why risk turning being a winner into being a loser?
• a child praised for winning a school cross country event might refuse to enter a county competition
• A child lauded for "being good at maths" might refuse to enter a maths competition, or to give their all when surrounded by more accomplished mathematicians.
What's more – if success is achievement-based in one area, a child will understandably feel they have failed in those pursuits they are less good at. A child praised for coming first in a spelling test, might feel they have failed when they are come near the back in a swimming race, despite trying their best.
A child praised for attainment will think: “I better not do anything to put this at risk – I don’t want to do anything which might make be less praise-worthy – so I’ll avoid anything in which I might not shine”. Why would they risk turning their current success into a failure?
How bizarre, we might think....surely when I said "congratulations, you came first, you are brilliant at running” to Jenny last week, this will encourage her when she comes to run in a more competitive event next week?
Not bizarre at all, says Professor Dweck. If we have come across as valuing the outcome of the race (their first place) rather than valuing their effort and perseverance, of course they will be reluctant to enter a race they may not win. A child who thinks that success is about outcome, will tend to limit themselves to what they can already do well.
Instead of praising the outcome, evidence suggests we should praise the process.
Praise a child for trying hard, stretching themselves and persevering, and that child will seek opportunities to apply themselves, challenge themselves and keep going!
What’s more, children praised for effort, work harder and longer and with more enjoyment when challenged – as opposed to quickly becoming frustrated and giving up. And of course, a child who tries hard, relishes challenges and perseveres, achieves a better outcome than they would otherwise.
The message is (terrifyingly) that what we choose to praise can either make or break a child’s development. A subtle difference in what we choose to praise can make all the difference.
This film – “Carol Dweck – A Study on Praise and Mindsets” – is well worth 5 minutes of anyone’s time – anyone that is who is interested in encouraging our children to do well!
Chris Wright, Head of the Junior School, February 2018