Parents and teachers often think that praise will motivate students to achieve, but it may be doing just the opposite.


Unless you have been living under a rock for the past forty years, you have probably heard of a little thing called self-esteem.  A hot topic in parenting books, education, self-help, and even relationship advice, the idea went something like, if you believe in yourself you can do anything!   Reach for the stars!

The key tenet, set off by the 1969 publication of “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden, was that positive self-esteem must be achieved at any cost.  Praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together.  So, anything possibly detrimental to a kids’ self-esteem must go.  Competitions?  No way, too damaging!  Everyone’s a winner and everyone gets a trophy.

Teachers were told to throw out their red pens and adopt a lexicon of approval and positivity.  Parents were told to value the power of positive praise, the more the better; abundant, permeating, undeserved, and ever-present.  But as it turns out, the “science” of self-esteem was not that scientific.  It was flawed and flat out inaccurate.

More recent studies have shown that having self-esteem does not improve grades or promote career advancement.  In fact, (gasp) it doesn’t even keep you from becoming a criminal, as it especially does not lower violent or negative behavior like lying and cheating.

You may be thinking, like I did, now what?  If I can’t say, “good job, you’re so smart,” then what am I supposed to do?  In fact, it turns out that telling a child they are smart when they succeed may not be wise.  Praising a child as “smart” or by using other nondescript positive praise, builds their self-esteem on a tenuous platform.  One misstep or failure pulls the rug out from under them, calling into question everything that the child’s self-esteem is based upon.

New research conducted by Carol Dwek of Columbia University found that praising kids for being “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming; in fact it may actually cause it.

Dwek spent ten years doing a series of experiments with 400 fifth grade students in the New York Public School System.   The researchers would individually give the students a non-verbal IQ test that was designed to be easy enough for all students to do well.  These tests consisted of series of puzzles that students were required to solve.  Once the child completed the assessment, students were told their score and given one line of praise.

Students were divided into two groups.  One group was praised for their intelligence with, “You must be smart at this,” and the other group was praised for their effort with, “You must have worked really hard.”  Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round.  The student could take an easy test that would be just like the first or a more difficult test where they were guaranteed to “learn a lot from attempting the puzzles.”

Ninety percent of the students who were praised for their effort chose the harder test for the second round.  Conversely, of the students who were praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test and with it guaranteed success.

For me this raises the question: Does too much praise based on intelligence create a fear of failure in students that prevents them from trying?  It seems that as they are praised for being smart, kids internalize the message, “look smart — don’t risk making mistakes.”

A second round of experiments by Dweck seems to point to this conclusion.  In this round, students were given a much more difficult test where everyone failed.  The kids who were praised for their intelligence assumed that their failure was evidence that they weren’t smart at all.  They were miserable.

In the group where students were praised for their effort, the kids assumed that they hadn’t focused hard enough.  They responded by being more involved.  These students felt challenged and positive, remarking, “This is my favorite test.”

When both groups were given a third test that was easy again, the group praised for effort showed a 30 percent increase in score, while the group praised for being smart showed a 20 percent decrease in score.  Could this be an explanation of why many of our brightest students are underperforming in school? If so, what can we do about it?

Upon interviewing the students, Dweck’s team found that students who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the value of hard work.  This results in a stigma on effort among the “smart kids”.  They think that being smart means that you shouldn’t have to try, and showing that you’re trying means that you’re not that smart.   This does not give them a mechanism to cope with failure, which can lead to bad behaviors such as lying or cheating to avoid failure.

Conversely, when students are praised for their effort it gives them control and power.  It teaches them that intelligence can be developed and that their effort has an impact on their performance.  So what can parents do to develop this healthy work ethic and sense of control?  Here are some suggestions from the experts:

  1.  If you are going to give praise, make sure that it is specific, focused and skill or task-oriented.  So instead of saying, “Good job!  You are so smart at this!” try “You did a great job concentrating on that difficult math problem without asking to take a break.”
  2. Make sure that praise is sincere.  Children can tell when it is not and often take this in exactly the opposite way that the parent or teacher intended.  They think that the adult is giving them this empty praise because they lack skill or are not smart enough.
  3. Teach kids that the brain is a muscle and giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. Kids who received study skills training along with the information that intelligence can be developed improved their grades and study habits.
  4. Rewards and praise must be intermittent.  If praise and rewards for performance are too frequent, kids will not develop persistence.  The effort will stop when the rewards disappear.  And it is an important life lesson to learn that frustration can be worked through.

As I sit thinking about these suggestions, it occurs to me that professionally, making this change is relatively easy.  As teachers, we are always trying to apply best practice methods of motivation and learning.

Applying these strategies at home with our own children can prove to be significantly more challenging.  I think of how many times per day I or someone else around me says to my precocious little daughter the words “you are so smart,” and I cringe.  What would it mean to give this up?  It may take some practice to remember to say to our own child, “You did a great job telling that story!”  or “I’m so proud that you worked hard to get a good grade!”, and to say those things with the same enthusiasm as “you’re so smart.”

Teaching hard work means letting your children try and succeed or try and fail.  It means watching them get frustrated and not always intervening.  It means helping them build a basis for their self-esteem on effort and persistence rather than vacuous praise.  In this high pressure world, that is the better foundation for success.

Here is the article I referenced in this blog:  Let me know what you think.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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