In praise of the right kind of praise.
Part of our shared responsibility as a school and as parents is to help children develop self-confidence. This is not an easy task. With our best intentions, we often sabotage our own efforts by failing to remember how confidence develops. As much as we would like to think you can build real confidence through language, it doesn't usually work that way.
Telling a child that they are “so smart" or "super-talented" can make children feel good in the short term, however, as they inevitably encounter challenges and failures in their lives, they don’t typically possess enough experience with overcoming hardship to maintain their self-esteem. Over time, a parent’s flowery or “unearned” praise becomes meaningless to children. For example, I have heard from more than one child: “Mom always says I did a great job, even when I didn’t.”

Not to mention, kids who are reminded constantly of their gifts can develop a sense of arrogance that is off-putting to peers and may not be based in reality. Collectively, they show that whether or not praise is beneficial depends on when and how it is used (Dweck, 2002; Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Mueller, and Dweck, 1998).

A better way to help young people to develop real confidence is to challenge them and provide specific feedback to improve on what they are attempting. Instead of empty praise, it is better to offer your child purposeful recognition and direction. In fact, studies have shown that providing feedback designed to rather than to improve or recognize hard work and persistence can make children less inclined to achieve.

When children are praised (falsely or not) for their achievements, they will often have to make a mental choice between trying something new (and potentially failing) or not trying something to avoid the possibility of coming up short. This is what we talk about when we aspire to teach a “growth mindset.”

Here are a few examples:

Collectively, they show that whether or not praise is beneficial depends on when and how it is used. Praise is a complex phenomenon, but a relatively clear picture has emerged that provides guidelines as to when and why praise will—and will not—be beneficial.

Empty Praise   

Helpful praise

You proved how smart you are on that test.

You worked very hard and it paid off.

You are so gifted as a tennis player!

The time and practice you put in are obvious.

Great job!

This week you were able to correctly define 15 of 20 biology terms. That is up from 8 last week. Terrific progress!

You should have been on the field more than the others

I noticed you were really patient and supportive of your teammates.

You have such a beautiful voice

You demonstrated real courage today by getting up on stage.

You were the best actor in the play

You were an inspiration to others today and you put the work in to learn and deliver your lines.

You didn’t deserve that grade. You are so smart!

Sometimes we don’t get what we deserve, but mostly we do.

You had a great class today!

Today in class, you wrote non-stop through the entire writing period. I appreciate your hard work.

Don’t worry about it, you’ll be great!

Last year you were really nervous about starting school, but think about all the friends you made

Super improvement!

I can tell you’ve been practicing your free throw!

How come you didn’t get the trophy? You totally deserved it.

If you play sport for the right reasons, you don’t need a trophy to feel it was worthwhile.

Some innate gifts are provided at birth--naturalathletictalent,high IQ, height,and perhaps even physical beauty. While there is nothing wrong with admiring them, the traits to which we should call attention for praise are those that are not God-given--hard work, determination, courage, empathy, kindness, curiosity--those things that can be taught and grown, and which ultimately determine a child's character and success. The innate gifts pale in comparison to the skills that will help them lead productive and happy lives, and importantly provide them with real self-esteem.

Therefore, praise should be sincere, not be comparative (to other children), and focus more on the effort than on the achievement if we wish to motivate students and help them develop confidence in their abilities.

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