How to praise

The lovely ladies over at PAIL are hosting a book club this month on a book I’ve really wanted to read for a while, Nurture Shock by PO Bronson & Ashley Merryman. The book is a collection of chapters, each one on entirely different topic with studies outlining their findings. The style is much different than other books on parenting – it’s more focused on the study and leaves it at that, there’s not much how-to (though there seems to be plenty of info on what not to do). Admittedly, I’ve only read half the book so far, but the deadline to post is today, so here we go anyway.

I was amazed at the information in almost all of the chapters, but the two chapters that particularly struck me where “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” and “The Inverse Power of Praise.” Race was so incredibly interesting, but I want to focus on the praise chapter, because I was shocked and alarmed about how off my parental instincts were on this.

Before opening Nurture Shock, I heard saying things like “good job!” and “you’re so smart” to your child aren’t the best ways to encourage them to accomplish things (thanks to this article sent to me by a wise and mindful mama friend), so I had tried to temper it back. My boy often amazes me with new skills or words, and “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so strong!” are on the tip of my tongue, but I try to focus on saying things like “You put the ball in the train” or “you made the train go” instead. At first this change felt empty or silly, but I got used to this new way. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes for L at this age, but I think the narration is important at his age as he develops language and ways to communicate, so I was satisfied with this solution for the time being.

I read the chapter in nurture shock which further drove this point home. One study highlighted in the chapter was performed by Professor Dweck at Columbia University. By giving kids just one different line of praise, either praising them for being smart, or for working hard, the fifth-graders in the study were greatly affected by just one line. Those who were told they were smart, didn’t want to try a more difficult test for fear of being found out that they weren’t actually smart. Children who were praised for their effort were willing, able, and happy to take on more difficult tests and even enjoyed being challenged.

In another study, some children in class were taught that intelligence can be developed with effort instead of it being just a natural talent. The children who were told that the more effort they put in, the smarter they become drastically improved their test scores.

It all seems so simple, praise your child for working hard and figuring things out, things that they have some control over, and they’ll enjoy working hard and trying new things. But, as the study says, just ONE LINE of praise can affect your child’s behavior so much. How, as parents, will we be able to help our children focus on what matters – effort – in a world where all of these messages coming from so many different adults can affect them so drastically? ACK!

Personally, I can’t remember much of how my parents praised or didn’t praise me. I worked hard in school and at sports in high school, I was never the smartest, but I did my best. I know early on in my life, I had zero self esteem and my Mom and Dad really had to help me along. I was almost held back in the first grade because I was very shy (literally would not talk) and not at all confident. I think this is one of the main reasons my instinct was to instill confidence in spades to my son: I didn’t want him to ever have to struggle with knowing he was smart. I was completely unaware of how detrimental that kind of praise could be. Additionally, my Dad’s Mother was the exact opposite of a high-praising parent – my Father was constantly told he wasn’t smart by his own mother. A few years before she passed, I remember sitting with my Grandmother in my parents’ beautiful house that my (intelligent!) father worked so hard to build and I heard my Grandma  say “But your Dad isn’t very smart.”

My Dad has dealt with so many self-esteem issues in his life because of her, and I didn’t realize how much watching that interaction and all of my Dad’s struggles has caused my parental instincts to swing so far in the exact opposite direction (literally until just now, while writing this up). I’m so happy I’ve read these articles and this book and can temper things back a bit before it became a problem for my child.

My parents let me find my own way, and after some struggles early on, I did. I’m a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and more than that, I found my own confidence through working hard to accomplish my goals. It took me a while to get there, but I did, and I’ll have to let my child find his own way too. I’ll provide him with the support he needs and instill in him the value that he to work hard and he can accomplish anything, and that persistence, above all, is what’s important.

Based on the first few comments I received, I’m going to assume I didn’t get what I was trying to say across that well. My take away from both my personal life and the book is this: it is very important for our children to know that we are proud, they are loved, and we think they are intelligent and capable of whatever they put their minds to. But it is also important that we don’t pepper them unnecessarily with praise – as I was doing early on with my son. Really, every little thing he did I would exclaim “good job! You’re so smart!” and this probably would have continued if I hadn’t read these things. Because I felt so strongly I wanted my son to have confidence and know he was smart that I was way overdoing it. It will be interesting to see how my perspective changes as my son goes to school, is around other children, and starts to be graded in school.  I want him to be confident in his abilities and learn the value of hard work, but I don’t want him to be in search of my (or his teacher’s) “good job! You’re so smart!”. I want him to find pleasure in learning and figuring things out, and building his own confidence. I want to be there for him to help him build confidence when he needs me. I know how important this all is because I still see my grown, successful father struggling with confidence and self worth to this day because of his childhood.

Nurture Shock is a very thought-provoking and important book on thinking about children, that I would encourage every parent (and educator) to read.


11 thoughts on “How to praise

  1. First off, that worm keep dropping down and FREAKING ME OUT. Just saying.

    Anyway, back on track. 🙂 I think that it’s not that we can never tell them they are strong or smart – but to do it intermittently (basically – to make it mean more, and not be something they EXPECT to be told for every little thing they do)…and in the interim, to praise the effort they are making instead. That’s how I read it anyway. 🙂 It was an incredibly interesting book for sure!

  2. I liked the little whales swimming up up up as I scrolled! 🙂 I can’t imagine being a parent that struggles to or purposely chooses not to praise their kid. It seems SO natural to just be like “Ah yay! You’re the best! Great job!” especially when they do something miraculous (like point at the wall and say “WALL.”) We made the switch to praising effort or just noticing what the girls are doing aloud, but I definitely still have moments of verbal adoration for the girls – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that (it’s like Josey said, the intermittent thing).

  3. Pingback: PAIL Book Club: NurtureShock Posts – PAIL Bloggers

  4. OK I’m feeling left out…there are no worms or little whales for me…

    I commented on Josey’s post about an article I read in regards to praising baby girls on their beauty, so instead of saying you’r so pretty or so beautiful you were supposed to say things like you’re so smart. Then I read this book (haven’t finished it either, knew I woudn’t so didn’t join the book club) and realize, damn I’m totally screwing up my kid. I like to praise when my daughter does a good job and there is effort involved. Not just for every little thing she does. Thank you for the views in your post…this topic is thought provoking!

    I really like the book and am going to try to encourage my husband to read it as well.

  5. Great post! I think it is worse to tell someone that they’re not smart, but as the book says, concentrating on the effort the child is making is most important.

  6. I remember rolling my eyes when a friend sent me a NY Times article on this very thing, but after reading that chapter, it makes sense. I think a lot of parents probably don’t go overboard with the “you’re awesome” vs “you tried so hard” type of praise, but I think it could be easy to think all praise is good. I was told how smart I was from an early age, and as I result, I think I have a fear of failing. I remember sobbing over my first C ever in geometry in the 8th grade and fearing that meant I wasn’t smart. At that point, telling me I did my best felt like a cop-out. It’s hard b/c of course I think my son is the most awesome, brilliant, handsome 3 year old ever, but the chapter convinced me to make sure I praise his effort as much as I do his all-around awesomeness. Good post!

  7. I was constantly told I was smart too. I have to say that I am super sensitive to being perceived as being dumb too… like when I was new at my job, I hated asking questions for fear of sounding dumb. Maybe they’re on to something. With Miss E, I try to compliment the effort but sometimes “you’re so smart” still slips out. I already commented this on someone else’s post, but I wish there had been a chapter on physical self-esteem. I tell Miss E she’s pretty every single day because I had horrible self-esteem as a kid. Not sure whether I’m doing a good thing or a bad 🙂

  8. Wow, I love that you blogged about this because now I want to go read this book. So, so interesting! I didn’t even THINK about something like this and how it would affect H. I mean, you would think any sort of praise is good, right? I guess not! Thanks for blogging about this!

  9. I read this book not long ago, too (they had a copy of it in the nursing mother’s lounge at my grad school. Appropriate!) This chapter in particular made SO much sense to me. I was always really advanced at certain subjects in school– anything involving language, reading, writing just came very easily. And being “smart” was a huge part of my sense of self (which probably explains why I’m still in school in my 30s). But anything that didn’t come easy to me? Like math or sports? I decided I was “dumb” or “bad” at those things and just gave up. Because the worst thing possible in my mind was to try at something and fail and thus be proven dumb.

    I know that I want my son to not have those hang-ups. Because I have seen time and time again that raw, innate intelligence is NOT the most important ingredient to success. If you’re clever and motivated and work hard you’ll do well in life even if you’re not a genius. If you’re very, very smart and have no direction or persistence, you won’t.

    It is so, so hard for me not to say “Good job” to everything Smudgie does. But like you, I try more to narrate what he’s doing and praise his effort. There’s a lot of, “Wow, you’re working really hard to get up these stairs,” and “You just put that peg in that hole” and stuff like that. I hope I can get better at it with practice.

    (It also DRIVES ME CRAZY when Smudgie’s grandparents say things like “He’ll go to Princeton one day!” or talk about what a genius he’s going to be. I just don’t want him to grow up feeling like if he doesn’t go to an Ivy League school his life is over).

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