Several months ago I wrote about the difference between praising your child and overpraising him. But in reviewing a recent article in Scouting Magazine, I came across a different perspective from psychologist Carol Dweck.
In her research on the effects of praise, she believed that there was a qualitative difference in the form of praise. The first form was "person praise", in which a child is praised for their own traits (you’re really smart or you’re beautiful) while the second form was "process praise", in which a child was praised for the process in which they did something well (you did a great job studying for that test). Her research revealed that there was a quantifiable difference in how the two groups – each receiving its own form, personal or process – did on similar tests.
In a two part experiment, students who were provided with identical IQ tests on which they all scored well. But afterward, one half of the group received person praise while the second half received process praise. In a subsequent part, the students were allowed to choose which of two tests they wanted to take – and there was a discernible difference between the difficulty levels of the tests. The majority of the person praise group chose the easier test while an overwhelming majority – think 90% – of the process praise group chose the harder exam. Subsequent interviews found that the person praise group feared that the test would negatively affect their image, i.e. they wouldn’t appear as smart. Finally, each group was given an identical test and the person praise group did discernibly worse than the process praise group. In this instance, the person praise group scored 20% worse than the first test while the process group scored 30% better than the first test. With a testing group of 400 kids, this appears to be significant.
So what does this mean? First, you simply must pay attention to what the kids are doing and share with them that you’re paying attention. Kids aren’t stupid and can tell a line of bull from the truth. Second, offer praise that focuses on what they’ve done. You can still tell them that they’re smart but if they understand that the success comes from the combination of smarts and applying themselves, it will help them build the drive to succeed and overcome obstacles later in their lives. Focusing on the process also helps them understand where things did – or did not – work well in the particular circumstance.
As the psychologist notes in the article, "We cannot hand children self-esteem on a silver platter, which is what we’re trying to do with person praise. What you can do is give them the tools to manage their own self-esteem, to take on challenges and see them through, to build and maintain their own self-esteem."
Which is probably far better said than I could say myself.