How to praise your kids

…a growing body of research–and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system–strongly suggests it might be the other way around.  Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming.  It might actually be causing it.

It turns out you should praise them for their effort, not their intelligence.  If you praise kids for their intelligence, they tend to avoid tasks they fear they will fail at.  And get this:

Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy.  The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”  …image maintenance becomes their primary concern–they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down.  A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.

That is, by the way, from New York magazine.


Well, it does ring a bell from dealing with my own.

I guess my doubt about the summary (haven't clicked through) is that it seems to assume there is One True Way of handling kids. My own two react very differently to different types of goading, threats, bribes and other forms of cajolery/punishment/encouragement/whatever, and I'm sure there are others further apart on the spectrum. So "make the praise fit the child" seems more likely than "one type fits all".

Shouldn't this have been obvious. You don't praise a kid for something they didn't have anything to do with (intelligence). You praise behavior, not abilities. As the saying goes, I would rather have a child of average IQ that works hard than a lazy smart kid.

That certainly rings true with my own experiences. Having it drilled into me from an early age that I was "gifted" tended to make it easier to be the underachieving kid whose teachers and parents were constantly telling them that they were "capable of so much more" than for me to actually try my hardest and risk the possibility that I wasn't actually as smart as everyone said I was and to be exposed as such. That continued all the way through law school (as Tyler can testify to... I was a slacker in his class as well). Bizarrely it became easier to do the paper at the last minute with little to no preparation than to actually bust ass trying to do the best paper I could do. As sort of a "have your cake and eat it, too" phenomenon, it allowed me to do less work and still never risk the possibility that someone could be disappointed in my “best work†. After all, if you get an B+/A- on a paper you BS-ed your way through, you could still be an Einstein, albeit a lazy one. Get an A-/A on a paper you really worked hard on (without the professor instantly pulling you into their office to tell you that they’d be honored to write your recommendation for a PhD program at the best department in the nation) and you risk being simply above average, toppling all your carefully crafted illusions.

Mike K. and Alcibiades, I'm in the same boat.


As the saying goes, I would rather have a parent that appreciated my talents than one who nagged me for being lazy.

In my experience, children that attend schools for the gifted at the grammer school level behave as the study predicts. I took my daughter out of the Fairfax County gifted program after 6 months, because I felt the damaging effect of the social environment far greater than the positive effects of a better academic program.

"I felt the damaging effect of the social environment far greater than the positive effects of a better academic program."

I agree. I think that's why Ayn Rand speaks to a lot of kids from that environment, because some kids get tired of the teacher-pleasing and the whole gifted-kid rat race, and Rand tells them to use their brains how they want and not to give a crap about pleasing this or that authority figure or how you "stack up."

Could be...

Like the rest of ya, I just read the bit above and haven't (yet?) gone to the source. The first few sentences struck me as scary in their potential for possibly explaining my disappointing acheivments to date by ascribing that to simple well-intentioned compliments. Of course being aware of the fact that people see themselves in every few words strung together (particularly those that "explain" their reasons for not being successful) I don't really put too much stock in this as an explanatory theory but it does give me something to think about (and hopefully - now that I know, or can pretend that I know, the cause - overcome?).

But the final few sentences quoted do not appear to reflect my personality or school experience too well.

Here's my deal:

I was told that I was a genius for as long as I can remember. And indeed, I was always at the top of my class. At the top of my class but never the teacher's pet. In fact, my station was often demoted out of the honor roll for being a smart ass to teachers. I hated (and I do mean Hated) authority from my very earliest years and never sought to please. My answers do not have the "intonation of questions" but rather of pronouncements. And indeed, my brothers were also the tops of their classes as well.

But. The fact that I consider myself to be brilliant may very well be (one of) the roadblock(s) to acheivement for me. You see, I am plagued with perfectionism and have never had any interest in doing any "normal" things. Anything I do must be Revolutionary, Amazing and must be something that clearly manifests my amazingness. Because, after all, I'm a genius.

Oh, and of course I also don't really relish being tested by giving something my all and failing at it. Then the only thing that makes me mnuez - my genius beyond that of mere mortals - would be shown not to exist. And if I'm not the best in the world at something that isn't life meaningless?

That by the way, actually was - literally was - how I saw my life in my very young years and which may still be of some influence today. I literally believed that anyone who was not the world's best at something was nothing.

Wow, I oughtta go to confession more often. - To be accurate though, I still consider the ideas expressed in the post to be only possibly relevant to myself. Were I blessed with credulity however, I'd finely prefer to believe them as the Word of the Lord and might be able to convince my mind into leading me towards greater personal success now that I "know" the reasons for past failures. And thus would succeed.

I'll try that.


add me to the list of MR readers who were summed up perfectly by Mike K.
i'd wager that most of the 'intelligent' people in our society are, too.

How many of us "mike ks" derided other students who were *merely* hard workers and not as naturally smart as the *gifted* kids?

This study is somewhat old news.

See Rules, Praise, and Ignoring: Elements of Elementary Classroom Control.

These specific praise techniques have been used successfully in classrooms since the 70s as part a successful educational program. See Project Follow Through. and the performance of the Direct Instruction program. It's one of the few educational programs that's been successful with the lower half of the curve (raised performance by about a standard deviation). Naturally, it's been ignored by educators.


you aren't alone. One of my closest friends was exactly like you. he was at least 30 and still exactly like that. I went to MIT where I found out rather quickly that I wasn't one of the best at any of the things I liked, but kept assuming somehow my potential was still there, but never could I find it. admitting to myself how average i was was a crushing blow. but for my friend, it was worse. he was so oppositional he wouldn't even allow himself to take rent-paying jobs if they were merely mundanely-above average. and when he actually would bite off more than he could chew and be afraid of failing? he'd create the most amazing artifices by which he could undermine his own success--and always blame the boss, the supe, the Authority for causing his failure. I think that my friend couldn't make the same realization I did--that for all his brilliance, he was still not going to live up to that fantasy. every time he tried, he ended up in as mental hospital, as the crushing weight of reality was too much to bear.

so tread carefully on cracking your illusion, and tread carefully on keping it in place.

but there were many other students there who felt shades of what you felt, and were hobbled by it, unable to do well, unable to admit their own failures. I myself found a better solution to my limitations and mundanity: progeny. now, i can achieve immortality with a much higher probability.

I read the article and felt like it was written about me. I have spent my entire life not living up to the potential I have been told I have. I have always hated school because everything was simultaneously too easy and too work intensive. So I became somewhat famous among my classmates for dominating classes (often to the teachers' dismay) and refusing to do homework. Why do a page of problems if I already know how? Thus my grades were never a proxy for my performance, but merely the poor teachers' attempts to reconcile my clear understanding of the material with my steadfast refusal to complete assignments. Thus I endured countless lectures about how much I could accomplish if only I applied myself.

The sentence in the article that made me cringe the most was the one noting that gifted girls handle failure especially poorly. I know that for a fact. When I went from being the MVP of the Junior Varsity soccer team, to perennially riding the pine on the varsity squad, I completely fell apart. That season I attempted suicide more times than I can count. Later, when I retook the SAT, my score went down by 300 points. Convinced that both my athletic ability and intelligence were merely fictions created by my parents, teachers, and coaches, and exacerbated by me I fell further into my depression. I hated myself for being such a fraud. If I wasn't the best and smartest (without effort mind you) I was worthless.

It's ten years later and I'm still grappling with these issues. I'm scared to death of having children like me, so this article was a much-needed ray of hope.

I think the reason for the finding might be that the praise in the experiment was completely unrelated to either talent or persistance in maze solving. I don't think there is much of a problem when a smart kid is aware of being smart. But, when average children(which, by definition is what the majority of the experimental subjects were) have an unsupported belief in their own genius, problems naturally arise.

I think that this is a very good subject. When i was younger my mom and dad always used to reward me and my brother doing good in school. If we got good grades then we always got money. I think that when children do good they should get rewarded beacause that will make them want to keep working harded. Parents just dont have to give money, words of encouragement can also help. If parents try these methods then they will see a dramatic change in the sons/daughters actions.

i came on the net looking exactly for something like this.i'm so happy to find that my problem isn't just my fabrication but something real enough to be shared to this extent.
The write-ups above, i must say, have given real form to what was only misty in my mind.i'm one of the last minute people with an almost rude confidence in my abilities. The evil thing about my case is that i do so well even being the last to submit my paper with a minimal effort. It became my way.
This kind of attitude started earlier on in my life when i faced a major disappointment. i was suppose to lead my school in prayer and that morning the prayer was to be chanted.Aware of my responsibility as lead cantor, i practiced really hard days before this(recorded my voice and did a lot of self criticism).My peers noticed how hard i was practicing for this and were waiting to see how well i was going to do.On that evil morning it was time for me to begin the chanting and i went blank before the whole school. i tried to open my mouth but nothing came out. i had forgotten the tune i had practiced so hard for.Being a shy person i felt so embarrassed and confused,i wanted to fissle out of existence.My director worsoned the case when in jest he told me: " i could have done what u did without practice" i laughed but it hit me like a tornadoe.i gave up the hard work idea and settled for the average.Suprisingly however, this attitude made me less tense and confident since there was nothing to fear- i prepared myself for the humiliation( like that one incident)but instead i was praised for good performance.i realised(or so i beleived) that if i didnt put so much effort then the criticsm for failure wouldn't hurt so much.
Unfortunately it has made me very passive and uninventive. i do things only when i am compelled to them but once done everyone is amazed and praise me for it. Now that i am getting deeper into my adult life i know i have to be more positive or pro active about certain things in my life.

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Here is an iPhone app that contains all sort of praises for your kid.



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