Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study revealed the effects that praise has on a child’s relationship to achievement.
128 children were asked to solve math problems. 1 group was praised for their intellect (“you’re so clever!”) and the other for their effort (“you must have tried very hard”). When given more complex problems next, the kids praised for intellect struggled more, whilst those praised for effort worked harder at the challenge. The kids praised for intellect showed lower task persistence, enjoyment and performance. When asked to report their task scores to an external group, they inflated their scores. This group of kids learned to define intelligence as a fixed trait, and showed signs of distress when they experienced a set back in their achievements.
So instead of practicing excessive praise, what could we do instead?
Notice when you dish out empty praise. It’s likely that the words “good girl!” or “clever boy” roll off your tongue without much thought. It take effort to respond to a child’s effort or achievement. Conscious parenting challenges you to firstly notice what you say automatically.
But more than that, a healthier alternative to praise could be simply ‘keen attentiveness’ paid to the child:
“I once watched Charlotte* with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present. Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?”
*Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz
~ “How praise can cause a loss of confidence”, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, by Stephen Grosz