The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids—New York Magazine

I was really, really interested in this article from New York Magazine about how different forms of “praise” children receive can dramatically effect how well they are able to perform in school.

Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.

In one, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.

In another, students get a do-it-yourself report card and are told these forms will be mailed to students at another school—they’ll never meet these students and don’t know their names. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie.

When students transition into junior high, some who’d done well in elementary school inevitably struggle in the larger and more demanding environment. Those who equated their earlier success with their innate ability surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery—increasing effort—they view as just further proof of their failure. In interviews many confess they would “seriously consider cheating.”

This is scarily consistent with my own experience as a kid who was constantly told I was smart and special throughout elementary school. Throughout this period, I basically got by without having to work very hard. This changed in junior high, and my grades took a nosedive. To this day I have serious trouble doing things that don’t give me some kind of “reward” quickly, and this is very frustrating to me.

  • Jenna
    03/24/2007 02:44:23 PM

    I had a similar experience: coasting by on infant laurels in elementary school, not because I could do the work (I sure as hell didn’t) but because I could answer all the questions. The “Gifted & Talented” program only reinforced the idea that I was intellectually superior to my classmates. Until junior high, of course. My grades dropped, I felt incredibly stupid, and frustrated with the constant struggle to prove myself. To this day I want that reward, or praise, or instant recognition. As for competitiveness, heh. I still need to crush opposition so I can say, “I have a High IQ and I am Smarter Than You. Worship me, dammit.” That only leads me to avoiding people that are smarter or more accomplished than me. Suckage.