Praising effort yields positive, long-term resultsMotivating children to read, learn and try new things is probably one of the most important parental responsibilities, and one that has long-lasting effects, educators say. And exactly how adults go about encouraging children to learn their talents can make a world of difference.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Motivating children to read, learn and try new things is probably one of the most important parental responsibilities, and one that has long-lasting effects, educators say. And exactly how adults go about encouraging children to learn their talents can make a world of difference.
Compliments that most parents tell young children about how good they are at an activity can actually blunt their initiative, they say. Instead, parents should use compliments that recognize effort, stimulate conversation and encourage problem-solving skills.
When a child exhibits a particular talent, many well-meaning adults will automatically lavish praise (“You’re so good at that!”) as a means of improving a child’s self-esteem and increasing performance.
Yet, studies confirm complimenting a child this way can actually decrease performance, according to Kumar Sathy, an elementary educator and award-winning author.
“Studies suggest that complimenting children this way can lead to a mindset that intelligence and certain admirable qualities are innate or fixed, and kids either have them or they don’t,” Sathy wrote in the article, “When Compliments Backfire: How to Give the Right Compliments to Kids.”
“One study demonstrated that kids who performed well on an easy test and were told, ‘You must be smart at this,’ subsequently chose an easier test when given an option of two more tests to complete, while 90 percent of the students praised for effort voluntarily chose the more difficult test.”
Sathy calls these fixed compliments “not dangerous… (but) counterproductive”:
• You’re so smart.
• You’re great at math.
• You’re so good at writing.
• You’re such a talented artist.
• You’re a great reader.
The last one is “especially toxic,” he said. “The child absorbs it and, if he or she is young enough, believes it.
“Studies suggest that once children have internalized this type of compliment and truly believe they are ‘great’ at something, they not only put less effort into the task the next time (because they are clearly naturally talented at it),” he said, “but… they actually avoid more challenging tasks that use that skill in the future.
“Perhaps most shocking is the mix of helplessness, self-blame and vulnerability children experience when a challenging task leads them to question the validity of fixed compliments.”
Dr. Michael Gallo, an early childhood educator with the UND College of Education and Human Development, Grand Forks, explains it this way: “If I’m so smart, why do you have to keep telling me?”
If a parent constantly pours fixed-trait compliments on a child, and that child later has difficulties in that area, it could set the parent up for some explanations, he said.
“It could put some dents in a child’s self-esteem.”
Creating ‘praise junkies’
Early in his career, Gallo was prone to doling out compliments (“Good job!” or “Way to go!”) but later realized such comments “turned kids into ‘praise-junkies’,” who were intent only on winning his approval, he said.
“They’d show me a picture they drew and say, ‘Michael, do you like this?’” he said. “They were doing things to please me.”
Complimenting children on fixed traits is such a prevalent adult response “because we so want them to be successful, to feel good about themselves,” he said. “It gets a smile from the child.”
Rewards like that can make it difficult for adults to change what they say.
“Reflexively, telling a kid that he or she is smart or good at something is a deeply embedded habit that will be tough to break and convert into compliments about effort and hard work,” Sathy said.
He advises replacing a compliment like “You are awesome at math” with “I really like watching you work so hard on memorizing your multiplication tables. It means a lot to me that you don’t give up on it.”
That way, “when your ‘awesome multiplier’ somehow forgets a few basic single-digit multiplication facts at school, she won’t doubt the sincerity of your praise or resign to the notion that she is awful at multiplication because her internal narrative, the one you helped her construct, reminds her that the thing that makes her special when it comes to multiplication is not how great she is at it, but how hard she tries at it and how much she doesn’t give up on it.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Gallo cautions parents to be aware of seemingly innocent comments that belittle their children, especially in the presence of others.
“They may think it’s funny,” he said. But when a child missteps, for example, comments like “Oh, that’s our Sarah; she’s such a klutz” are detrimental and may have long-term negative consequences.
Well-intentioned, but less effective
The tendency to heap compliments on kids may be rooted in a desire to help the child to not be afraid of a subject or task, Gallo said.
It’s also been linked to parents’ pride in their children’s accomplishments — which reflect well on parents — as in, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said.
Or, it may be tied to a parent’s need to live out unfulfilled dreams through the child.
“We want children to become self-motivated, and to understand why they’re doing something,” he said. “It’s important to give kids good feedback, and to give them skills they can use down the road.”
Complimenting fixed traits, however, is not helpful because such compliments don’t really tell the child anything, he said.
“To say ‘Good job’ or ‘Oh, it’s beautiful!’ doesn’t give much feedback about what they’re doing.” Aim instead for responses that encourage conversation and “really tells them the effect of what they did,” he said.
For example, “if a child tells me, ‘Look Michael, I cleaned up the housekeeping corner,’ I might say, ‘That’s great. Because you cleaned up the housekeeping corner, we can go outside five minutes earlier.’ It helps them understand the effect of what they did.”
Gallo recommends giving feedback that helps the child think about how they achieved what they did. Understanding gained from thinking about the process will be useful when they approach similar situations later.
In his profession, it’s called “meta-cognition,” or thinking about thinking, he said.
If a child tells him she read a book quickly, “I might say, ‘Boy, you read that book really fast. How did you do that?’
“Or, ‘You used a lot of red in this picture. Tell me about that…’
“Children really delight in explaining something to someone else. It makes them feel smart and useful.”
In the field of education, “sometimes I think we are too focused on the right answer,” he said, “as opposed to problem-solving — how we got to that answer.”
Such skills will better equip children to live well and function productively in a rapidly changing world that will require imagination and fluidity of thought to meet challenges.
Excessive emphasis on the “right” answer may cause some children to be afraid of taking risks, he said.
Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to email@example.com.