Is praise always a good thing?

     Is it detrimental to praise a child for their intelligence or abilities? As a society we tend to praise and show admiration of our young for their intelligence or abilities. The problem with praising a child is not the act, but how it’s conveyed and how it’s delineated to the individual child. Praising a child for their intelligence and not for their effort or hard work will harm them emotionally in the future.  By praising a child for their ability you are opening them up to not only potential failure, but disappointment should they not be as successful the next time around.  Praising a child for their ability draws attention to them and makes a big deal of the accomplishment, regardless of whether it is from effort or intelligence and ability.

    There is research that supports this thinking about the effects of praise. In 1998, Dr. Carol C. Dweck, a psychologist from Columbia University, published some startling findings.  She administered a simple test to over 700 school-age children in New York City. Afterwards, researchers praised half the group for their intelligence and ability with phrases such as “you are so smart” or “you really used your brains on that test.” For the other group, she praised them for their effort and the hard work in getting the grade that they received.  Later, she offered the group a choice of an easy and a harder test. One test was the same level as the previous and the other was slightly harder. Surprisingly, the majority of the students praised for their intelligence picked the same test level as before and those that were praised for their effort and hard work chose the harder test. Dr. Dweck (1998) found that children praised for effort increased their test score by 30% and those praised for their intelligence scored 20% lower. 

     Dr. Dweck explains that when a child is praised for their intelligence, this puts that child in a fixed mindset that then leads to avoidance of new challenges in the future because of a fear of looking less intelligent. Dr. Dweck’s research suggests to all parents, teachers and leaders that praise of a child should be for hard work, perseverance and resiliency; she called this a growth mindset (Dweck, 1998).     

     In 2006, Dr. Dweck expanded the study to adults and those in leadership positions, and again the results were remarkable. She found that those with growth mindsets were willing to embrace challenges, learn from criticism and adapt by applying themselves with more effort in order to overcome tough assignments in the workplace. The opposite was true for those who were of a fixed mindset, and they instead tended to run away from challenges, had no resilience, made no effort to finish the job, and avoided unfavorable criticism. Furthermore, those from a fixed mindset perspective must continue to validate their expectations and abilities on the job. Those with a mindset opposite to that of a fixed mindset embraced new challenges, didn’t rely on others to validate them, and were open to potential for getting the job done.   

    Therefore, the bottom line is that praise and motivation of your child with an emphasis on their innate intelligence will be detrimental to their future in society. Instead one should praise children for hard work and perseverance. In this way, they will surely succeed as a child and in future work. To reemphasize, praise for effort, rather than intelligence, fosters a growth mindset that highlights the notion that taking risks and putting forth effort can bring with it rewards, even if the risk of getting there is uncertain.  These findings are the same for both children and adults.

Derrick Darden, PhD