Just Another Way We’re Screwing Up Our Kids.

Yesterday I came across this article in New York Magazine.

Titled “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise,” the article discusses research done by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia University, who found that in an effort to not screw up our kids, we are in fact screwing up our kids.

I encourage you to read the article, but the one-sentence version of the story is that we’ve become so focused on building up our kids’ self-esteem and making sure every kid gets a trophy and no one’s feelings are hurt that we’re setting them up for failure when something difficult eventually comes along.

Which, as we all know, it will.

Something difficult eventually came along for Jenny – she took failing her driver’s test hard (much harder than was called for), simply because she had never failed anything before and thought it was the end of the world.

Something difficult eventually came along for me – after graduating from college in three years, I couldn’t find a job. I was unprepared for how difficult the job search would be (and how much effort I would have to put into it) and fell into a deep depression.

In other words, I think Dr. Dweck is onto something.

“Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort.”

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

So… what do we do? Obviously completely withholding praise isn’t recommended (or very nice), but the article asserts that the way in which we offer praise can alter the impact it has on our kids.

“By and large, the literature on praise shows that it can be effective—a positive, motivating force. In one study, University of Notre Dame researchers tested praise’s efficacy on a losing college hockey team. The experiment worked: The team got into the playoffs. But all praise is not equal—and, as Dweck demonstrated, the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific. (The hockey players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.)

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.”

Again, this makes a lot of sense to me. Hearing specific things they’ve done right or worked hard on not only focuses on their effort, but shows kids we’re paying attention.

Changing the way we praise our kids – just another thing to add that to the to-do list, right?!?

But seriously… what are your thoughts on all this?

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  1. I’ve heard a lot about this lately…I go back and forth. I totally agree that false praise is counterproductive and goes hand in hand w/helicopter parenting. But I also know how POWERFUL words are {ie–you’ll never amount to anything, i wish you were never born}–and I hate to think people would go the other way and withhold praise simply b/c they are afraid of inflating a child’s ego.

    I heard someone (not sure where?) say that encouragement should focus on enCOURAGEment…focusing on kids having the courage to do whatever they did again–whether failure or success. I like that thought. That I’m not encouraging my kids just to encouraging them but equipping them with COURAGE.

    So, yeah, focusing on the EVENT rather than the CHILD or on MY feelings is the key. In Dr. Lehman’s book, Have a New Kid By Friday {which I reviewed for FIVE days on Impress Your Kids *plug*} he gave some key phrases to use. One of them I remember one of them was “You worked hard on that!” and “How do you feel now that you did so-and-so?”

    Anywhoo. My rambly 2cents.

  2. Amanda Biel says:

    My thoughts vary on this. I think sometimes, it depends on the child. For example, my 3 yr old is autistic, and is currently involved in a popular autism therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis. With this therapy, the system uses rewards to teach the autistic child basic things that most autistic children lack in, such as language and social skills. The rewards can come in the form of play, a phsycial reward, or most often, praise. I’ve seen an amazing change in Isaiah since we’ve started ABA. He responds, is making eye contact, listens, and is starting to talk more. Seriously, it’s like day and night. He responds so well to praise, he loves it, lives for it now. And it’s taught him so much. Even to the point where he does wrong, and gets condemned (for lack of a better word), he realizes he didn’t recieve any praise, and quickly shapes up. He has thrived on this new behavior modification.

    But speakin on terms of a “typical” child, I have to agree with you as well. I find it irritating, and demotivating, when there is no more “losing” in sports, or games etc. “Everyones a winner”…what!?! I don’t personally think thats right, children need to understand that life does have its disaapointments, and we need to learn to deal with them appropriately and be “good sports”. If you continually never let your child experiance real life disaapointment, he/she will truly be let down when a big disapointment comes along, and be unsure on how to handle it. Praise the child for trying, but let them know, it’s okay to lose. You learn from your mistakes 🙂

  3. The older my kids get (now ages 19, 16, 15, 12 and 9), the more they fail — that is to say, they have more opportunities to do things, and not all of them work out: a bad test grade, not making a team, not scoring in a game, gettng treated badly by a friend…all a part of life. What I’m learning (and still learning) is how to teach that “failure” (or disappointment) is something we ALL have to deal with, on many levels…but life goes on. While I try to focus on praise and encouragement, you have to be realistic with your kids (and yourself).

  4. I’ve always thought the excess praise and everyone gets a trophy devalued all praise and achievements and have been glad to see it getting some main stream play. BUT as your previous commenter said, with holding praise isn’t the answer. We need to praise legitimate things AND let our children fail. We need to make sure they have a healthy self esteem but they need to know that in life not everyone gets a trophy just because they tried. We can let them know they did a good job and put forth a good effort without giving the losing team a trophy.
    I’ve been fascinated to read some articles about how HR have had to change their approach to employee retention and happiness. Because the generation entering the workforce is so used to constant praise, some companies are “celebrating” when employees show up for work for X number of days in a row and on time. Young employees are seeking constant praise and reassurance from managers. They become unhappy and feel unappreciated if people aren’t constantly telling them what a good job they are doing. I find that ludicrous.

  5. I agree completely. I have recently been struggling with my three year old. If I praise someone else around her, she says, “but look what I’M doing, Mommy.” and I have to explain to her that, at that time, I wasn’t talking to her. She now looks for excessive praise and it drives me bonkers. I do not want her to be the student in class that is constantly asking her teacher for praise which is a huge pet peeve of mine as a teacher. I think it’s important to tell your child when they do something well, but it can DEFINITELY be overdone!

  6. It reminds me of the line in The Incredibles…..Dash says, “By saying EVERYONE is special, then no one really is.” (paraphrased)

    Too often you see these “all praise” kids on American Idol. They sing so horribly dogs are howling somewhere just outside the building. Then a judge asks, “Who told you that you could sing?” “My mom. She loves my singing.”

    Which is exactly why we’ve told our kids not to audition on American Idol. There are many things they are VERY good at, but singing isn’t one of them and I refuse to have them stand up and embarrass themselves based on my false praise!

  7. Such a great post, Em! This is such an important topic. Our kids need reality. Life is not Disney World 24/ 7. Like you said, when something went wrong for me, (the first time, before the driver’s test even, was in 9th grade – failed an Algebra 2 test. I never never knew before that that you had to STUDY for math. Cried for hours.) I was DEV-UH-STAY-TED. And my parents were very realistic with me, but until then everything had come easy for me and I didn’t know I could fail, and it was crushing. If I’d been trophied and overly praised before that, geez I might have had a complete mental breakdown!
    Thanks for writing this cousin, you inspire me to think about things other than funny poop stories. 🙂

  8. I use praise and positive words to encourage greater success. I have a 10 year old who is an honors math 6th grader. He is in class with kids 2-3 years older than him for math daily. When he brings home a b or c I remind him how smart he is and that he is capable, with little effort, but with effort, to do A or B+ work.

    The article is spot on. Specific praise is the key, I think there is also merit in pointing out to my 3rd grader. He excels at the arts and language, reading, spelling etc. When he points out the deficiencies of a fellow student in an area where he excels, we remind him, in love, that he has areas of struggle. It is good to remind our kids that they are not defined by their academic abilities or disabilities.

    Thanks for sharing and tweeting.


  9. Great post! As I am not yet a mother (only 13ish weeks to go before I become one!), I am looking at this issue through the eyes of a teacher. I have noticed over the years I have been teaching that the students have gotten more “needy” with wanting praise. I have to reward each student for simply doing what they are supposed to do every day. For example, today in class I praised a student for going above and beyond on an assignment, but instead of letting that student enjoy the praise, other students started saying things like, “I did my assignment too” or “I brought my book to class” or “I showed up at school today” and we’re talking 9th graders here people. They were all basically letting me know that I had not praised them for simply doing as they should do every day, and they were not happy about it. This kind of “praise begging” scares me. I worry about the future of these kids. Just as Michelle mentioned above about HR having to change policies to keep employees happy, what else are businesses and colleges going to have to do to appease these kids? What is going to happen to these kids the first time they are disappointed? Sometimes life isn’t fair and disappointing things happen. Sometimes we are all expected to do things, like show up to work every day, without getting a cookie for doing it. And as I’m typing this, I asked a student to please put up the chairs at his table. Do you know what he asked me? “What do I get if I do?” Thank you for driving my point home, student.
    And just so I don’t sound like I don’t think we should praise kids, let me say that I agree with what Oh Amanda said about enCOURAGEment. I think that is the best strategy I have heard, and I try to implement that kinds of praise in my classroom and plan to use it with my own little guy when he gets here in May!

  10. I don’t know how I did with this with my kids- but I learned when they were mostly raised and this was close to 20 years ago that praise should be specific and focus on the effort. ” You worked really hard putting that puzzle together” instead of “You are good at working puzzles” or “You used so many bright colors” rather than “Wow! You are a great artist.” These comments are in regard to young children.Also re: social skills -” You took turns really well with your new ball” rather than “You are a good friend.” General praise doesn’t teach young children anything because they are so literal , and they need to know exactly what you mean. So that’s my two cents worth.

  11. Have you ever read any of John Rosemond’s books? He has some really good points on this issue. I think you should praise kids when they do something extraordinary and expect them to live their lives properly without praise (chores, manners, etc.) But sometimes it’s difficult to draw that line because when your child does something for the first time it is, at least temporarily, extraordinary! So when Jack learns to zip his coat I hoot and high five and all that, but a week later when he wants me to watch him zip it again, I have to gently tell him that he just needs to do it from now on, no more show, no more hoo-rays.

  12. I have found in life that the nastiest people I know suffer from HIGH self esteem, not low self esteem. Hitler, Napoleon – well, I didn’t know them – and others…they weren’t un-sure of themselves, they were too sure of themselves.

    People need to fail to succeed, and they need to know when they do.

    You can build children UP, you just can’t set them UP.


  13. Oh yes, @ Diane (my sister-in-law), you’re just smarter about kids than most people…it’s a gift.


  14. I’ve had these same thoughts ever since I started working with kids. I worked with Pre-K kids for several years in an after school program. I put one girl in time out for 2 minutes or so because she was being careless on the swing, even after a warning from me. She was devastated. I told the mom what happened and assured her it was a minor incident. She replied “I can’t believe she had a time out! My daughter has never been in trouble before!”. I doubt she’s perfect. I think it’s much more likely that she’s spoiled and unprepared for criticism even if it’s constructive.

    It seems to me that the current generation of young parents is trying not to be like our overly critical parents. It’s funny how we think we turned out pretty good but at the same time we want to do things completely different than our parents and get the same results. i think Dr. Dweck is onto something with the specific praise that’s sincere. I’ll tune you out if I think you’re being insincere and I think kids do the same thing.

  15. I’ve read about this several times before, and it makes sense to me. My whole life, my parents told me I was beautiful, smart, wonderful – and that I could do anything I wanted to. Imagine my shock when that (doing whatever I wanted) turned out not to be true! My parents tried to prevent me from that kind of shock, but it didn’t work. I read an article in Time magazine years ago by a woman about our age saying that by her parents telling her she could do anything she wanted, it kept her from being able to choose one thing. It kind of struck a chord from me.

    That’s a bunch of rambling. It may have been too late for me to tackle a heavy topic. 🙂

  16. Well, I guess it’s a good thing that I’m an under-acheiving-very-familiar-with-failure person!

  17. I think it’s all about encouragement to them. And, Diane’s points about encouraging the action makes complete sense. I like to think that’s how we parent our boys. We actually parent each one of them extremely differently but use that sort of technique to encourage them to achieve what’s within reach according to their personalities too (since we have a confident one, an emotional one and a stubborn one).

    I do think it is a crock that all the kids get a trophy, that now schools have two select/”A” teams. I mean, c’mon. Not all kids are going to have the same level of talent. If my son weren’t to make a team, then I would explain he needed to try harder to be better. I would give him tips and offer to support him if he is passionate about whatever it is. But, he would know why he didn’t make the grade or team or whatever.

    To see that we are now creating other levels and calling them the same thing also assumes they are the same talent and that’s not going to help them in the long run. However, I fully believe that the parents are wanting this more than the kids. We actually had a mom state she didn’t see one kids name on their team roster and felt sorry for them. Well, until she realized that kid made the better team and her kid’s team was actually the “B” team. Then her tune changed about the entire program. I mean, what does that tell you?

    Let’s not get into the whole “last name” getting kids somewhere too. Those kids getting the preferential treatment will be sorely mistaken when P&G gives a diddly about who their daddy is. Unless, the daddy works at P&G. In this case, their style of parenting might just be effective 🙂

    I could go on and on just from seeing what I have being a mom and observing this for the past 6 years our oldest has been in school so I’ll just stop right here. 😛

  18. A to the Men. Since everyone else has written books in the comment section I will just leave it at that 😉

  19. As a teacher and then as a mom I have always tried to reward hard work and effort more than results. I do think that parents should be the source of endless support and love but not empty praise. My 4 year old is getting to the age when loosing at anything is a HUGE meltdown and for us ( husband and I) that means we need to offer him even more chances to fail. Seems counter intuitive but really it’s so he can cope with failure , cope with not always winning and realize just how wonderful it is when he works hard and he does succeed. Don’t make it easy though, but parenting is never easy.

  20. I enjoyed this post from many angles…first, as a mom who wants to raise kids with healthy self-esteem…second, as a hockey mom (love the fact that the hockey piece was studied…there are so many lessons to be had in hockey and other team sports) and third…as a Child & Family Therapist, whose life’s work has been studying and supporting the social-emotional development of others.

    Dweck supports what we have long known. As in all areas of life, there really can be too much of a good thing. Too much praise? You betcha! It starts to lose its effectiveness after awhile. But helping kids deal with disappointment and allowing them to experience some of the let downs of “real life”? For sure. I can’t think of a better way to prepare kids to take on the real world…or build real social-emotional intelligence!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  21. This post obviously struck a nerve…with everyone!


  22. Carol Dweck does a TON of research on mindsets. She has some other amazing things to say. I do agree with most of it.

    As a teacher, I see a lot of, “so I did what you wanted…what do i get?” mentality. It’s stemmed from a lot of praise-and-reward-for-everything actions. I would really like my kids to get more into the mindset of doing things for the reward of doing them. For the pride and respect that you have for yourself.

    (When I give an assignment for a project, I give them the requirements…for a C. If they want an A, they have to go above and beyond of their own accord. Trying to get them think about doing more and being better.)

    It is much easier to reward for everything. But that’s not how the real world works.

  23. WOW! I am dealing with this at home with Josie now about let downs…she is SO upset that a little girl in her class doesn’t want to be her friend. I tell her that not everything is going to go her way, along with not everyone is going to like you, it’s a fact of life. I told her that she just has to be the bigger person and still be nice but that it’s a learning experience for her at age 4 1/2.
    Great post! Makes ya think even more!!

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