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How to Nurture Persistence with (the Right Kind of) Praise


Sure, you praise your kids. And they look at you with beaming little faces. Such a warm feeling, if only for a moment. But, is that all there is to praise? What’s simmering in the brain behind those sparkling eyes? It may well depend on the precise nature of the praise you gave.

There are at least two main ways that you can praise a child. First, you can praise them as a person. You can say, “you are very smart” or “you are good at math.”

You can instead tell them things like, “you did a nice job on those math problems” or “you tried hard.” In this case, the stress of the praise is on the actions taken, effort put forth, or strategies used. Here, you are praising the process rather than the person.

Could the exact mixture of words in your praise really make a difference? Could it affect their long-term motivation to learn?

Elizabeth Gunderson of Temple University and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study to find out. She published her paper on how, “parent praise affects kids’ later motivation,” in the journal Child Development.

Gunderson’s idea was that “process praise” tends to communicate that success depends on ones’ actions and effort. Kids who hear a lot of process praise should internalize the idea that they can do better by working hard and finding better ways to do a task.

“Person praise” send a different message to the child. It implies that abilities are fixed, so that effort and learning strategies do not matter. You are either good at something or not, and there’s no changing that.

Her work built on a earlier laboratory studies led by Carol Dweck, the growth mindset guru. The lab experiments showed that process praise results in increased persistence and improved performance on challenging tasks, as compared with person praise.

Gunderson and her team decided it was time to see if these lab results would hold up in more natural environments. The researchers went to people’s homes and videotaped parents interacting with their young children. They did get permission first.

The team reviewed the videotapes, and coded the kinds of praise parents offered to their children. The codes included process praise, person praise, or other praise. Then, they waited…

Five years later, researchers returned to assess the kids. They measured whether the kids preferred challenging or easy tasks. They assessed whether the children tended to believe that intelligence is something that develops, rather than something that can change. They also tested to see if the kids could come up with strategies to handle setbacks.

Gunderson and her team found that the amount of process-oriented praise that parents used when kids were little were related to all of these measures 5 years later. Kids who heard more process oriented praise tended to:

  • prefer challenges
  • believe that intelligence was something that could be improved, and
  • generate strategies to overcome initial failures.

The overall amount of praise given did not matter. It really came down to the amount of process praise the parents used.

It’s good to praise your children. There’s no problem with telling them they are good kids.

Try to work in additional praise that acknowledges their actions, their effort, and the strategies they use. You will help them realize in subtle ways that they can take on challenges, persist through adversity, and achieve success.

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