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You're so smart and other dangerous praises

The Doc Smitty’s “Masters in parenting” series

“Aren’t you the prettiest little thing?!?!”

“You are perfect in every way!”

These seem like such great things to say, but are they helpful? Could they actually be harmful?

A study done by Carol Dweck at Stanford attempted to answer what types of praise are helpful for a child. She took a group of 400 fifth graders and gave them all a challenge that was difficult, but able to be completed by most of the children.

They then divided the children into three groups:

1. Children praised for intelligence - “You finished the puzzle. You’re so smart!”

2. Children praised for effort - “You worked so hard on this puzzle. Good job.”

3. Control group praised for outcome with no comment on why they were successful - “You got the puzzle right.”

Next, they went back to the students and told them that they were going to do another challenge. They were given two options:

A. A challenge that is more difficult from which they could learn a lot.

B. A challenge that is easier and which they were sure to do well.

The students who were praised for effort chose the harder task while the students who were praised for intelligence chose the easier task. It seems as though praising for intelligence caused children to want to do whatever it took to succeed at the expense of trying or learning something new.

A follow-up study also showed some interesting results. They divided the children into similar groups and gave them a challenge with some receiving praise for effort and some praise for intelligence. They then presented all the children with a more difficult challenge and timed them. Children who had received praise for effort worked much longer on the task before giving up than those who were praised for intelligence.

So, what does this teach us? Here are some pearls for praise that I think are important things to keep in mind.

Praise for legitimate things. If you praise your children for every single little thing, they will eventually see through it. Not to mention, the constant rewarding may make it harder to make the point stick when it really is time to do some serious praising. They aren’t “perfect in every way” so there’s no reason to tell them so.

Praise for qualities that children can work on. It’s OK to occasionally tell your little one, “You’re so handsome” or “You’re so pretty.” (Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves.) But there are so many other things you can praise your child for that involve issues of character and not externalities. Some examples include: compassion (helping someone who is scared or sad), fairness (offering to share a toy), helpfulness (helps with family project liking picking up a room) or responsibility (remembering to put away their shoes after they take them off).

Praise for effort. This is the most common mistake I see being made. You can see from the studies above how important this can be. One of the biggest goals is to avoid having a child who is such a perfectionist that he or she is paralyzed to try new or hard things. The studies above show that kids who are praised for effort do two important things: try things that are harder and try harder on things that are hard (read that again real slow if you need to).

So, work to make your praise specific, sincere and (when possible) for effort.


About the author

Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville View more from The Doc Smitty at his Facebook page. He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.

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