On Praise of Children

2007-02-20

The February 19th, 2007 issue of New York Magazine has an article by Po Bronson, entitled “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.”As a father of two, I was compelled to read it.

The article sources psychologist Carol Dweck and her teams at Columbia and Stanford. The gist of it is that praising children with generalized statements like “You’re so smart” or “That was great!” leads them to believe that they are only receiving praise because they need extra encouragement. If they are constantly being told how intelligent they are and how wonderfully they perform, they begin to expect that everything they do should work out as well. Then when they fail at something, they simply give up. Praise needs to be specific.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

As I read along, I was getting worried that I was screwing up my children. But then I came to this:

“Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children – under the age of 7 – take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.”

If I’m reading that correctly, my 4 and 6 year old boys haven’t been damaged by excessive generalized praise yet. Though I will have to start scaling it down and be more specific with the 6-year old, Kevin.

For those interested in more of Carol Dweck’s work, check out her page at Stanford and these interview clips and transcripts.

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