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Parents, particularly good parents, are praise junkies. They love to praise their kids who, in turn, grow in self-esteem from showers of parental approval. Parents and children bask in their mutual success, and everyone is happy.
The only problem is that the praise craze only gets it partly right: Praise for smarts can be debilitating, while praise for effort is empowering.
Such is the arresting conclusion a new 10-year study of 400 New York City schoolchildren by Columbia University psychologist Carol Dweck (now at Stanford), as explained in a fascinating article by Po Bronson in the current New York Magazine.
Dweck conducted a brilliant experiment. Her researchers individually gave each child an IQ-style test of relatively simple puzzles, told them their score, and gave them a single line of praise. Some were told, "You must be smart at this." Others, on a random basis, were told, "You must have worked really hard."
Next, the children were given a choice of test for the second round. They were told they could take a more difficult test, which the researchers said would teach them a lot, or they could take a second test just as easy as the first one they had just been praised for.
Now comes the stunning part. Of the children who were praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Among the children who were told how smart they were, a majority chose the easier test.
IN THE summary of her study, Dweck explains why. "When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart; don't risk making mistakes." This squares with other research that shows the smartest kids, who are often told how smart they are, are plagued by a lack of self-confidence.
"For a few decades, it's been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students severely... underestimate their own abilities." Bronson writes. "Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent."
Since smart kids have been implicitly taught that being good at something depends on smarts, they figure that they can't handle anything that is not automatically easy for them. At the same time, they learn that risking failure might puncture the source of their praise - their smarts.
In the next round of Dweck's study, the fifth-grade students were all given the same test, this time one designed for kids who were two years older. As expected, all failed. But the children who were initially praised for their effort found the test enjoyable and interesting. They worked hard at it and some of them told Dweck's researchers, unprompted, "This is my favorite test." The kids praised for smarts, by contrast, "were sweating and miserable," Dweck reported, presumably because they were anxious that failure was threatening their status and self-image as smart children.
Dweck told Bronson that even she was surprised by the powerful effect that changing a single line of praise, from a stranger no less, could have. But it makes sense. "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control," she explained. "They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure."
Last month, Dweck and her colleague Lisa Blackwell published another study in the journal Child Development. Blackwell took kids in an East Harlem magnet school who were low-achieving in math, many of them minority students. She divided the kids into two groups: Both groups received a series of lessons on study skills, but one group was given just two sessions (50 minutes total) teaching that the brain is a muscle, so working harder makes you smarter.
Again, the results were remarkable. The teachers had no trouble discerning which students had been been taught that intelligence could be developed, though they hadn't been told which students had been in those sessions.
According to Bronson, "In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students' longtime trend of decreasing math grades."
SO HOW could this insight be put into practice? Bronson points out that the enormous body of research on self-esteem shows that it is important, but it's not a panacea, and it has to be cultivated carefully.
When the Association for Psychological Science asked psychologist Roy Baumeister to review the literature on self-esteem, he found that only 200 of the 15,000 studies conducted met their organizational standards. And from reviewing these select studies, Baumeister concluded that high self-esteem did not raise grades, improve career achievement, reduce alcohol usage or lower violence. (It turns out that highly aggressive people tend to think very highly of themselves.) The conclusion here is that what kids, and maybe the rest of us, need is praise that is targeted, sincere, and not too constant.
One researcher, Robert Cloninger, trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they got to the finish. The key is "intermittent reinforcement," which teaches that frustrating spells can be worked through. "A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they'll quit when the rewards disappear," Cloninger says.
Being specific with praise is very important. We need to praise kids when they are working hard, while focusing on key details of what they are doing right.
And it wouldn't hurt, it seems, to cut back on telling smart kids that they are smart, and to teach everyone that the brain is like a muscle.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11