Praising Children, Risking Failure

How can something that feels so good be so…not?  A recent New York Magazine article by Po Bronson warns about the perils of praise. In “How Not to Talk to Your Kids”, the author reports findings from a series of experiments conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) that studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York public schools. Children in the study were given an easy series of puzzles. Afterwards, each child was given his score. Half of them received brief praise for their intelligence, “You must be smart at this.”  The other half were praised for effort, “You must have worked really hard.”  The reactions of the children were astounding.

When given a choice between an easy or more difficult test the second time around, the children who had been told they were smart wimped-out, picking the easier test. The children praised for trying were up to the challenge of something harder.

Then, in a difficult third round of tests, all the children failed. The ‘effort’ children felt they could do better; they enjoyed the challenge and wanted to try again. They continued to show tenacity, perseverance, and improvement.  The ‘smart’ kids seemed totally defeated and threw in the towel.

If a stranger’s praise has such power to influence a child, imagine the effects of a parent’s daily validation!

The article also examines children like Thomas, a boy with an IQ in the top 1% and no self-confidence. He balks when asked to try new skills like fractions or cursive, and even refuses to attempt them.  He gives up if he doesn’t master a skill immediately. All his life he has been praised for his intelligence, but he has no courage or initiative. He is filled with self-doubt in his abilities. He won’t risk failure.

What intrigues me about Dr. Dweck’s studies is that by confirming the negative effects of praise, they also confirm the effect of ‘nurture.’ But where the conclusions described in the New York article fall short for me, like most of what I read about parenting (and I’ve been reading a lot lately), is that they do not address the critical first years of life, the time when dysfunctional (or highly functional) parent/child patterns of interaction are created.

Self-confidence begins in infancy. Yes, children are resilient and adaptable, and it is never too late to make adjustments in the way we parent.  But we have a window of opportunity in the first years to help our child grow healthy emotional roots strong enough to endure the rollercoaster of life.

We use praise believing it bolsters our child, makes him feel happy, capable, self-confident and loved. Those same good intentions also lead us to rush in to rescue children from any perceived suffering, including possible disappointments, struggles, frustration, mistakes and especially failure.

But, our “keep ‘em happy”, “feel good” parenting backfires, because our children really need to experience all those “negatives” in order to learn to take them in stride.  They need to know that struggle, frustration, and failure are not to be feared, but just a part of life. In fact, healthy learning, growth and success are impossible without them.

Believing in our children is not telling them, “You’re great. I believe in you”, and then fixing their fallen block tower. It is believing in them enough to let them risk making mistakes, to flounder as they experiment with their developing skills. Tenacity and perseverance are not traits a child grows into. They are traits babies are born with. We condition our children to quit trusting themselves by helping too much or too soon.

Praising our children is a knee-jerk reaction that takes constant self-reminders to control. I still find myself starting to say “great job” to my children, and switching gears into, “You must be really proud of yourself!” It’s a fine distinction, but an important one.  I feel lucky to have learned from infant expert Magda Gerber that the ability to persevere through frustration and struggle, and to then be acknowledged for one’s efforts is the real route to happiness and self-confidence. Continuous praise becomes empty, and there is never enough.

Learning to fall, getting up again, and moving on, is the best preparation for life.” -Magda Gerber

 

I share more advice for raising self-confident, resilient children in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)

24 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Wonderful article Janet. And, I wholly agree. I should maybe pick up something on Ms. Gerber to learn more as well, but I so enjoy learning through your articles. My only son is fully grown now, so this is just knowledge for me, not something I am going to put into immediate action. But knowledge is a great collection.

    Your statement that “continuous praise becomes empty, and there is never enough” is so true. Coupling that with “‘learning to fall, getting up again, and moving on, is the best preparation for life,'” they affirm what I believe in – “Truth in all things.” It’s a long story not to be belabored here, but something I came to understand several years ago.

    There are inherent and intrinsic truths in life. When we are over bearing, even with the best of intentions, we deny given truths. These truths begin at conception of life and evolve from our earliest formation. Once born, these truths are influenced for the time by exterior factors – me and you, the world around us, all the circumstances that prevail. From birth on, we will never escape exterior influence. But the truths remain, because they are our essence. Why do I say these things? Because that which is inherent cannot be altered. To attempt to do so causes conflict whether perceived or not.

    To acknowledge failure or weakness is to acknowledge reality. We can all live within reality. To deny that which is reality creates a falsity that one with sufficient intellect may perceive as a judgment or condemnation. If I fail, but you deny it is so, I can only believe that you are ashamed of me. Whether I ever admit that to you or not, it may become part of me. Falsifying reality can never alter a given truth.

    As children we can’t analyze that, but we can feel it. Later in life we may have to analyze it at hundreds of dollars an hour. There is nothing wrong with honesty. We are all different and therefore we will all succeed in some areas, not succeed in others. Both are acceptable, normal, and given truths.

    I can apply my personal philosophy to any of your articles. A child is a person, a living being, they progress that a certain rate unique to them. We can push and prod, but they are who they are, and we are only a nuisance when we believe we can interfere with their individual timetable. We can assist, we can guide, we can be there to pick them up when they fall, but that’s it. Everything else belongs to them.

    Wonderful article Janet, thank you.

  2. Ed,

    This is wonderful, THANK YOU! And you really need to start a blog!

  3. Janet:

    I love your lines: “Tenacity and perseverence are not traits a child grows into. They are traits babies are born with.” I see this so clearly with infants and toddlers who will try try try again. It’s an idea easily shared in a parent-infant class as we watch a baby make an effort to turn and reach, inching toward a ring of measuring spoons, finally grasping them and shaking them with such intensity and with an expression of joy and a full body wriggle of satisfaction.

  4. If you liked that article, read the rest of Po Bronson’s book, Nuture Shock. I loved reading that book and have passed it on to others!

    1. Yes, I’ve been meaning to read that…have heard wonderful things. Thanks!

  5. Janet – love this article, thanks. Have just written a hugely description enthusiastic response and lost it all because I missed the captcha code thingy aaarrgh! so I’ll keep it short and say that I really agree with all the points in your article and as a parent whose worked hard on this model from the beginning, it’s so rewarding to watch my children’s (8 and 14) incredibly positive and stress free relationship with school and their learning in general.

    Such important information to share, keep up the great writing 🙂

    1. Oh gosh, Genevieve, I’m so sorry about my mercurial friend “captcha”. He’s ruined so many fabulous comments for me! But thank you for sharing your successes with your children and learning. I have noted the same “positive and stress free relationship with school and learning” with my 3 children. In fact, one of my proudest parenting moments was when my eldest (now 18) told me a few years ago that they did an activity in high school — drawing pictures about their feelings — and she realized that she had no stress compared to all of her friends, who drew stacks of books, etc…

      Thanks for your kind words!

  6. Janet,

    Great post, my first I’ve read here. I agree completely, and in fact wrote about a related/similar topic on my blog a while back. It’s about how it’s in the small failures — the baby’s/child’s, yes, but also yours as a parent — that the child grows and learns. If you don’t fail your child a little bit (an infinitesimal bit when they’re infants, more and more as they get older) they don’t learn their own strength as well.

    Anyway, I invite you to read it, on Confessions of a Mean Mommy:

    http://www.confessionsofameanmommy.com/feel-like-a-failure-as-a-parent-you-may-be-doing-everything-exactly-right/

    best,

    Denise

    1. Denise, thanks, I loved the post and enjoyed your site! What a relief for our kids to know that grown-ups make a ton of mistakes… And your son’s self-directed, autonomous snowman-making (or anything-else-making for that matter) is an unqualified success in my book! The “product” is inconsequential. 😉

  7. hi janet!
    i’m digging through your archives in hopes of addressing a couple things that have been coming up very recently…

    we are totally with you about praise and are very mindful about what we say – but more importantly how and why we say it – when a typical “good job” would otherwise be inserted into a situation.

    what i’ve been running into lately is that dylan (age 2) is hearing “good job” all the time at the park (etc) from other parents.

    that phrase is mindlessly and relentlessly thrown around by other people within earshot or directed to dylan and he has picked up on it and will often say “good job!” to himself or someone else. and it makes me cringe a little.

    i will then follow up with “wow, d! you worked really hard to fit those pieces together” or “you did that yourself!” or “look at you swinging so high!” in an attempt to shift his energy from the “good job” and onto his process or just to a non-judgmental observation.

    i would love to hear your thoughts on this…
    trying not to “good job” in a “good jobbing” society!

    thanks and love,
    sara

    1. Hi Sara! This is great… “not to good job in a good jobbing society”! And I could substitute that for a lot of other societal practices with infants and toddlers that I disagree with. I think the key here is that we can’t control everyone around us and even if we could, it would be incredibly exhausting!

      Your son is excited about his new verbal skills and will naturally repeat what he hears. He hears the phrase in the positive light in which it is meant and knows it’s a compliment. That’s OK! His most profound influence by a mile is you. So, don’t worry what everyone else says, just keep doing the awesome job you’re doing. The best thing you can do is model those great responses: “wow, d! you worked really hard to fit those pieces together” or “you did that yourself!” Some of the people around you might even pick up on it.

      Love to you,
      Janet

      1. Hi Janet – a great post and important to understand the difference between praising the child and praising the effort. I am a bit confused, though – isn’t “good job” acknowledging the effort of the child? “Good boy” or “good girl” is assigning value to the child themselves and agree that is not productive but I don’t see the problem with “good job” – it falls in line with the other affirmations of effort, no?

  8. thanks so much…
    once again, your perspective is *just* what i needed!

    xx

  9. I very much agree with this view and would be interested to hear what others think of ‘rewards’ such as stickers, treats etc for behaviour that should be a given? I feel we should support children to achieve for their own intrinsic reward and not for some external reward. I find a quick hug, a smile or a thumbs up is all the reward the children I work with need when they have persevered and are happy with their end result.

  10. Great article reflecting how we feel. yet we do fall in the trap of ‘good job’ and ‘well done’ sometimes. We exclaim ‘you’re so clever’ as well. I’m finding it hard to find substitutes. There are a couple good ideas in the article and the comments but do you have more? Where do we find some good way to praise that’s not the usual mindless stuff?

    1. We usually go with what the article says, but sometimes we go with “Good work!” It’s a small distinction, but since we’ve talked about how hard our son has worked on things and have emphasized practicing, I think he understands the difference.
      Also, I read something recently where a preschool teacher will say, “Last week you couldn’t button your coat. We’re all learning!”

  11. I don’t praise my son, now almost 6 years old. Mostly, I newscast or if he does something he’s been struggling with, I may say, you must be so proud if you. Or you were worked really hard to — and you did it. Or maybe, I really love seeing you —- . BUT, my son hates trying new things, or struggling through learning new things. We have told him that everything requires practice, that you learn most from failing and getting up and trying again, etc. but I’m not sure how much of this he absorbs. When faced with a challenging situation (playing a sport, meeting new children, learning to read, trying something new), he is very oppositional and contrarian. I don’t push back bc it only makes him retreat more. But it is very trying for us as parents and we’re concerned how this will impact his ability to make friends, grow as a person and be happy in life.

  12. Great job on this article Janet. I read the NY Mag article when it first came out and it was quite intriguing. I grew up, as many of us did, in a family environment where praise was a huge part of my life… the “good job” kind. I was also “that Mom” with my older son, and cringe now when I think back to how he craved that. Now I see the difference in my younger son… it’s wonderful to see. The challenge I face is something another poster brought up…what others do. My kids have both been in therapies for different issues. It’s tough when the feedback they get is all “good job”, profuse clapping (this especially bothers me), and other types of empty rewards.
    My son then will look for that from me and everyone else around him. I want my son to feel like his effort is what matters, and to be proud of who he is, not to feel he is valuable only based on what he accomplishes. This becomes more concerning as he grows older and is more and more influenced by others. I am thinking there really isn’t a whole lot we can do as parents besides doing what we are doing… thoughts?
    Thanks for all you do,
    Deb

  13. I wish you would cite evidence related to how these kind of statements change a child’s confidence if spoken by a parent over time. You make the jump from a “stranger” to a “parent” quite confidently, but I’m not sure I agree. I think a stranger’s/teacher’s words would have entirely different effects when compared to a parent. Mainly, a child knows where they stand with a parent; it is a much deeper trust relationship. A child’s confidence in themselves and willingness to take risks hinges on a lot more than whether parents tend to use a simple “good job” or not. Parents do a TON of non-verbal communicating in how much they let their child explore or fail, and to imply that any parent who praises their child with the phrase “good job” a lot is setting them up for failure is just too simplified. You always talk about treating children like you would want to be treated (as a whole complete person), and if I had an awesome accomplishment, I wouldn’t want my husband to say “you must be proud of yourself.” I would love for him to say “I love you and I’m so proud of you!” I think that just makes me part of a loving, encouraging relationship, not a person who looks for empty continuous praise. I owe my children the same type of honest encouragement, and want to teach them to do the same for others.

  14. Thanks Janet, I love this. I’m constantly catching myself saying “great job” and sometimes i switch gears and reflect, while other times i genuinely ‘feel’ it so i just go with it!

    I would love a list of phrases as an alternative to praise to use with my daughter, do you know of any? 🙂

  15. Hi janet
    I have just found you and this article reminds me of challenges I see my 2yr dd having. She gets so easily frustrated when things don’t work for her the 1st time. A big example of this is using her fork. Sometimes things don’t stick to it at all or fall off etc and this upsets her. It’s getting to the point that she is refusing to eat unless we stab the food for her and then give her the fork. If you have any suggestions on this specific situation wonderful but I’m only hoping you can atleast refer me to other articles or something where examples and suggestions are given to help our child work through a failure and try again and be ok with it? Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations