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The power of praise — good and bad

Much ado is made these days about the power of praise in the lives of children. With seven children of my own, I understand how much they need affirmation. But I often chafe at how indiscriminate some experts are about their encouragement to praise.

A few years ago, I ran across a book that challenged the popular notion about “the power of praise.” Nurture Shock is a book by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The duo compiled many of their New York magazine articles through the years on the science of parenting. It’s broken into topical headings with provocative titles that strike at the heart of culturally vogue parenting myths.

Right out of the blocks the book attacks the Golden Calf of  parenting myths — that children should be praised for things like their intelligence, and as often as possible.  Bronson wrote in his original New York article:

“According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.  In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.”

power of praiseThe problem is that studies suggest this type of praise is having the opposite effect. “Giving kids the label of ‘smart’ does not prevent them from underperforming.  It might actually be causing it.”

The praise fad owes it genesis to Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. Bronson and Merryman contrast it with the recent research of Carol Dweck which shows quite a different picture.

For more than a decade, Dweck has studied the power of praise on the academic and social well-being of older elementary school children. Consider what she found when she looked at research from other scholars:

  • Children who are praised for their intelligence are more likely to attempt easier tasks, seeking success over growth.
  • Children praised for their efforts are more likely to attempt harder tasks. They attribute their lack of success to their own actions, then redouble their efforts the next time. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck says. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success.  Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
  • A review of 200 studies done on self-esteem finds that the quality didn’t improve grades or career achievement. Nor did it lower alcoholism or violence.
  • Students who grow up with excessive verbal reward fail to develop perseverance and are prone to quit trying when rewards are withdrawn.
  • Among two control groups, students who were taught study skills alone didn’t perform as well as those who were given study skills and taught about how challenging the brain improves intelligence.

Bottom line: Don’t praise your children simply because you think they need to feel good about themselves and their gifts. Praise them for what they do well, for their efforts to tackle a problem. Bronson and Merryman point out that children are quite adept at sniffing out insincere praise. In fact, they may even dismiss adults who seem too quick to praise when it’s not really due.

There are those parents. And then there’s me.

I’ve always been on the other end of the spectrum. Because I know what insincere praise feels like, I often don’t praise out of concern that a child may feel that I’m pandering to his self-esteem. My seven children have learned that when Dad gives praise, it’s genuine.

Unfortunately, Dad doesn’t invoke the power of praise enough.

While the findings detailed in Nurture Shock do somewhat vindicate me in my low-praise approach, still I know that I need to strive for greater balance. The best place I know to find that balance is in the Scriptures.

I’m immediately reminded of the story of the three servants. Each is given an amount of their master’s money to look after while he is away. When he returns, he asks them to give an accounting. Each had solid explanations for their actions. The master praised the first two while harshly rebuking the third. The bottom line is that whether they received a lot or a little, the servants were judged on what they did with what they had. That is a good ground rule.

Praise — whether it’s for children or adults — shouldn’t look like junk mail, which comes to everyone indiscriminately. It should look more like a hand-written, hand-addressed note. Praise should be the result of a job well done, a situation well handled, or a challenge nobly met. At the same time, praise-stingy people like me need the admonition that the Apostle Paul gave to the believers in the church in the city of Philippi.

“…Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8

Each of us needs to be diligent to look for praiseworthy qualities and behavior. And we need to be just as diligent to make sure that our praise is sincere, and sincerely warranted.

Bronson and Merryman conclude the first chapter of Nurture Shock with a personal story about learning to praise appropriately. The author, undertook a personal three-step program to recovery for praise addicts like himself.

  1. First not praising everything,
  2. Then looking for specific things to praise that would unleash the child’s initiative to achieve.
  3. Finally, learning to delay praise until the child wrestled through a problem himself and had earned the commendation.

Coming from the other end of the praise continuum, I guess I need to have my own three-step program for the praise stingy.

  1. First to consciously hold off on correction unless it’s absolutely needed.
  2. Then to look for very specific incidents where praise is due and offer it freely and sincerely.
  3. Finally, to make honest praise second nature.

Praise is impotent when used indiscriminately, but when sincerely applied has incredible power to unleash undeveloped potential. We would all do well to use it wisely.

1 Comment

  1. Dave's Gravatar Dave
    November 23, 2013    

    I am with your side Scott. I grew up thinking of it as “Blowing sunshine up”…… Today looking back I look at it as the parable of seeds. The sun dries out the plant. Dave

  1. The power of praise – good and bad - on November 22, 2013 at 2:40 pm

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