Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Power of Praise (hint: it's not what you think)

This post is written for inclusion in the Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted by Paige @ Baby Dust Diaries. All week, April 26-30, we will be featuring essays about non-punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.

In Montessori training we are taught to be mindful of the amount and kinds of praise we give children.  One of the main goals in Montessori is to foster children's innate motivation to learn and do things.  Children instinctively want to please adults, and giving lots of very enthusiastic praise can cause them to start doing things in order to please and get that praise, rather than because they truly want to do them for themselves (to use creativity in art as an example, they may start making the kinds of drawings that tend to get them lots of praise, rather than what they may want to draw for their own enjoyment).  In the classroom, we try to give limited praise, and focus on praising the process rather than the finished product.  So, basically, praise is something I've been aware of for a while and tried to be mindful of (which is difficult in our culture, as praise is usually viewed as a very good thing, and the more of it the better).

Then a few months ago I read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's book, NurtureShock, and I was blown away by all the research that supports the idea that lots of praise is not really a good thing.  Here is one simple example:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.  

Read more: The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids -- New York Magazine

NurtureShock deals with many different topics, but the first chapter is on praise and its positive and often surprising negative consequences.  It looks like most of this first chapter has been published on the web over here (thanks, Jessica, for sending the link!), and I urge every parent, teacher, grandparent, and basically anybody who ever deals with children to head over and have a read.  It's a difficult concept to wrap your head around sometimes (how in the world can praise be bad, right?), and an even harder habit to break (I have such a hard time not gushing to D how smart he is every 5 seconds!), but I think it's a really important thing to pay attention to.

The rest of the book is equally brilliant.  There is a chapter on how sleep affects learning and mood (and how many of the classic stereotypes of teenagers-- grumpy, disengaged, bored, etc-- might simply be symptoms of sleep deprivation thanks to having to wake up so early for school); how parents deal with race and how important it is to talk with your children about it; why kids lie (and why most strategies used to keep them from lying to us encourage them to get better at it instead); why siblings fight; how to teach self-control; how children and babies develop language skills (hint: it's not just about talking to them); etc.  Each chapter challenges some basic idea that most of us take for granted as Truth, and instead presents all sorts of evidence for how and why that approach might be backfiring on us.   It really is a fascinating read, and one I recommend highly.  You don't have to agree with what they say, but it's pretty eye-opening and at times just plain shocking to read through all the research they have studied.


Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at to the Carnival of Gentle Discipline

Please join us all week, April 26-30, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month in the USA and April 30th is Spank Out Day USA. In honor of this we have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives.

Are you a Gentle Parent? Put the Badge on your blog or website to spread the word that gentle love works!
Links will become available on the specified day of the Carnival.

Day 1 - What Is Gentle Discipline
Day 2 - False Expectations, Positive Intentions, and Choosing Joy (coming Tuesday, April 27)
Day 3 - Choosing Not To Spank (coming Wednesday, April 28)
Day 4 - Creating a "Yes" Environment (coming Thursday, April 29)
Day 5 - Terrific Toddlers; Tantrums and All (coming Friday, April 30)


  1. I'm so glad you wrote about this. It is always difficult to tell someone that praise could be a bad thing (people usually laugh at me). I thought the book Nurture Shock was so so good. Just eye opening. It is chuck full of research based ideas but it isn't a boring read. Thanks for summarizing how praise can be negative!

    Thanks for participating in the carnival! The whole week is going to be so great.

  2. Thanks for this post and the link to nurture shock; I hadn't heard of it although I've read some of the Alfie Kohn works which says a similar thing about praise.

    I think it's really important to separate the person from the behaviour and now my daughter is 9 she understands that I am proud of HER, not what she does or what she 'achieves'.

    I am trying to get her to understand that her EFFORT is as much to be praised as the outcome, but she seems to have come with her own agenda, which is to be 'perfect'. It breaks my heart to see her struggling with this. I just keep giving the same messages and I hope in time she will lessen her need for perfectionism.

  3. Great post! I have recently discovered the Nurture Shock blog and love how they integrate the research with the real world. I will be looking for the book at my library next. :)

  4. Fascinating post! I’m part of a Montessori group reading Nurture Shock at the moment. The concepts really fit well with Montessori philosophy. Praising the child’s hard work/process makes a lot of sense.

  5. We are looking into Montessori for our daughter for next year. It is a bit above our means but I do like this aspect of it. Lately my daughter will show us a picture she drew and say "isn't it perfect?" If we say anything other than "Yes, it's perfect" she gets upset. I'm not sure where this has come from. We try to praise her effort and work rather than the finished product, but I think she must be getting this at school. Ugh! Because she is so sensitive I think she needs a change.

  6. Thank you SO much for this excellent post. I *know* this but I always forget it and I've fallen deep into the praise trap. I don't suppose that book gives any tips on how to extricate one's self from that trap, does it?

  7. Sounds like Nurture Shock would be an interesting read! Will add it to my list!

    I have heard about that study before with the kids and the tests. WHAT AN EYE-OPENER.

  8. that research was very interesting! and my son will start a part time Montessori preschool in the fall. You have me even more excited about it! I am looking forward to learning a lot from them as well.

  9. This post helps me understand what my daughter has tried to explain about praise. New concept for me but I understand the reasoning. I will have to read the book soon.

  10. Silvia1:12 AM

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, I've been reading your blog for some time, but it is the first time I write. Greetings from Geneva (CH)!

  11. Kohn talks about similar studies in "Unconditional Parenting," and it made me completely change my thinking on the whole "good job" thing. Thank you for the book recommendation, I just reserved it at the library!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...