“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job“. If you watched the movie Whiplash, this line probably stuck with you, too. Hearing it reminded me of an idea I had encountered before: Praise can do more harm than good. It’s a little counterintuitive, isn’t it? How can approval be harmful? To my surprise, sometimes it can. That gave me lots of food for thought lately. Did the praise that I offered, as a parent and teacher, cause any damage? And now that I know better, what would I do differently?
For example, recent research suggests that praising kids’ natural attributes without stressing the importance of their efforts is a bad idea. Repeatedly telling them “you’re intelligent”, “you’re talented”, or “you’re fast”, may give them “a fixed mindset”. And people with that kind of mindset think of their abilities as fixed and thus impossible to improve, regardless of one’s efforts. As a result, they won’t push themselves too much because…what would be the point?
If we should avoid praising kids’ natural talents, how about their accomplishments? Would it be ok to say to them “you played well” or “you did an excellent job”? It turns out, that kind of praise could hurt too, unless the accomplishment is truly significant and your response isn’t limited to praise. Because even more important than praise is talking to kids about what exactly they did that led to their success. Otherwise, the praise will mean nothing to them, at best. And at worst, in the long run it will become an incentive. That means, receiving no praise will make kids feel like failures. As a result, they’ll stay away from difficult or unfamiliar tasks because…why would they risk to fail?
There is no doubt that, by giving praise, we mean well. We do it to encourage and reward positive attributes and outcomes. To build kids’ confidence in themselves. And yet, we may achieve the opposite! Instead of strengthening, we weaken kids’ self-reliance and their drive to stretch themselves. Or, as some studies suggest, we breed suspicion and indifference, even among the youngest. It’s ironical, but some think that praise is code for failing, and its sole purpose is to encourage one not to give up. And there are kids who, after receiving a lot of praise, just stop hearing it.
So, how can we avoid this turning of praise on its head? How can we achieve its intended purpose for real, that is to nourish kids’ self-confidence and to inspire them to push themselves? What should we say to kids to help them do their best?
I think we need to replace praise with feedback. Let me elaborate a bit.
- Kids need our help to figure out what it took to accomplish something. What did they do to arrive at the positive outcome? Which qualities and behaviours helped? For instance, if a kid solved a challenging math problem, besides acknowledging that, I’d ask how they tackled it. What went through their mind when they first read the problem? Why did they keep at it? And what, in their opinion, helped them solve the problem? Such conversations should help kids understand the kind of control they have over the outcome. Which strategies work and which don’t. And that persistence pays off.
- Kids need our help to learn that true accomplishments are never entirely due to innate talents. That yes, natural attributes come handy, but they are never enough. We must open their eyes to how much effort and preparation is always needed. For instance, how much practice and discipline went into a kid’s amazing performance in a hockey game? Or how much editing work and proofreading went into someone’s competent piece of writing? In our discussions with them, we must emphasize those positive processes and attributes that kids have a lot of control over, like dedication and rigour. This will get them “a growth mindset” instead of a “fixed” one, which means they’ll always push themselves because they’ll believe it’s in their power to improve and grow.
- More than anything, kids need our sincere and objective feedback. The reality is, kids will often know if they produced something of value. And so, the only thing they can gain from us is more understanding of what they did well, so they can do more of that in the future. For example, if a kid created a good website, I’d look at it and ask specific questions. Where did they get the know-how from? How much time did they spend on it and why? What made them choose that specific design? Which particular features were more challenging? I’d try to provide comments and opinions that are useful and constructive. In essence, I’d show genuine interest in their work, rather than direct praise.
In short, kids will benefit more from meaningful dialogue and actionable input, and less or not at all from praise. And if this seems obvious to you now, ask yourself how many times you have lost sight of it when dealing with kids. I know I did, but no more.