Motivation and Praise

At a time of year when we’re all thinking about counting our blessings, giving gifts, and making resolutions, it’s appropriate to think about how we praise our children and what that means for their motivation and their achievement.

Modern American parents believe strongly in “self-esteem” – and that our job as parents is to protect our children’s self-esteem by praising them lavishly so they will “feel good about themselves”.

But you know what?  It turns out that high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades in school or career outcomes in adulthood.  What really matters is motivation – the drive to meet challenges with hard work.  And the kind of praise we give children has a huge effect on their ability to successfully accept a challenge.

Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist with a strong research interest in motivation.  Her extensive research on school children has shown that children who believe that intellectual skills are a gift – that those skills are what they are, and they can’t be changed or improved – lose motivation in the face of challenge.  So when parents and teachers praise children for how smart they are, rather than for their effort, it backfires.

When children believe that they are “smart”, a set-back leads them to question their intellectual ability – and they can’t tolerate that, so they avoid potential failure.  As Dr. Dweck says, “when we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”  If they have to try hard or if they make mistakes, it destroys their image as a smart kid!  And since none of us can control our intellectual ability, that’s the end of it.  One of the reasons that smart kids cheat is that they don’t know how to handle the possibility of failure.

When children believe that working hard leads to success, they work harder and more effectively when faced with a challenge or a set-back – the challenge motivates them.  Effort is under everyone’s control!  And when parents and teachers give specific, focused praise, it lets children know what they did that was effective, so they can do it again.

So what’s the take-away from this?  Children are motivated by sincere, focused, specific praise – praise that tells them what they did that was effective and that their efforts can lead to success.  Praise that focuses on innate ability – “you’re so smart” – has the opposite effect!  Children who learn that challenges can be overcome by effort are willing to put in that effort.  Children who believe that they are “smart” learn to avoid potential failure in order to maintain that image.

On a personal level, I have tried to be intentional in using focused, specific praise when I’m working with a child: “I really like the way you are listening to the directions so carefully” or “It got hard there, but you just thought it through and kept on going” rather than “good job!”  My experience is that children love the focused praise, and they try very hard to repeat whatever behavior I’ve praised.

Challenge

  1. For two weeks, pay close attention to how you praise your children.  Think about praising them in a specific, focused way: “I really appreciated how you set the table before I had to ask you” or “it was wonderful to watch you take turns without arguing when we played Candyland” rather than “good job” or “you’re such a good big brother”.
  2. Notice if the behaviors you praise increase in frequency – keep notes if you can.
  3. At the end of two weeks, assess the success of using specific praise rather than general praise.  Do you notice a difference?

Here are two excellent books that discuss these ideas about self-esteem, praise, and motivation in more depth.

Nurture Shock (2009), by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential (2012), by Carol S. Dweck

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Copyright 2012 by Alice Wellborn.  All rights reserved.

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