Telling your young children that they are smart may not be
all that wise.
A new study found that it's probably not helpful for parents
to shower their young daughters or sons with commentary meant to boost
Instead, the right kind of praise and encouragement may help
children be more open to change and eager for the harder tasks that provide
opportunities to learn.
The research suggests that toddlers whose parents regularly
said things like "You tried really hard on that," rather than
"Wonderful," may have an edge as early as five years later when it
comes to taking on challenges.
This type of praise sent by parents early on can affect how
the children size up their capabilities, researchers said.
Telling your children
they intelligent vs praising their actions
"Telling kids they're intelligent rather than praising
the positive steps they're taking to solve a problem as they play can make them
question their intelligence when they encounter something that's harder for
them to do," said study author Elizabeth Gunderson, an assistant professor
in the department of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.
Gunderson said parents tend to establish one of two
"praise styles" early on, either focusing on what a child is doing
or, instead, on his or her personal characteristics. So, while one parent might
say something like "You kept trying until that puzzle piece fit in
there," another might instinctively say, "You're good at that."
Focusing on the process or activity - in this case, finding
the right puzzle piece - communicates that effort and actions can lead to success.
Focusing on the child's characteristics seems to unintentionally telegraph that
his or her ability is fixed, she explained.
Despite any differences in parents' natural style, parents
can be taught to deliver more process-oriented praise, Gunderson said.
"This research has definitely influenced what I do with my own 1-year-old
son," she added.
For the study, in the journal Child Development, the
researchers videotaped 53 toddlers and their parents interacting at home for 90
minutes. The parents were told that they were participating in a study of child
language development, to avoid having them focus on what they were specifically
saying to their children.
From the tapes, instances in which parents praise their
children were analysed by whether they emphasised strategies, effort and action
or positive qualities of the child.
The researchers noted factors such as race, ethnicity and
income level of the parents to help ensure the study results were not affected
by that data. They did not assess, or control for, the child's level of
Then, five years later, when the children were about 7 to 8
years old, the researchers followed up with the same families, assessing
whether the children seemed to prefer easy or challenging tasks, and if they
were easily frustrated when they hit a stumbling block.
Kids reported to have
more positive attitudes
In situations in which parents tended to praise actions more
than a child's characteristics, the children reported having more positive
attitudes toward challenges, were better able to come up with ways to overcome
setbacks and believed that they could improve with hard work. The study also
found that the total amount of praise did not affect the children's responses.
The researchers discovered a gender difference related to
the praise style of parents. Although boys and girls received about the same
amount of praise overall, boys tended to get more process praise than did
Five years later, boys on average were more comfortable
facing intellectual challenges and were more likely to think they could become
smarter through hard work than did girls.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State
University, said the study helps make the distinction parents need between communicating
to children that they can accomplish something and just raising their
self-esteem. "It means reinforcing to kids that they can do
something," Twenge said.
Findings in the study
While Twenge said she thought the researchers did a good job
of controlling for outside variables, she noted that it is impossible to
measure everything in this type of research, called a "correlational
She also noted that any time parents are being watched and
videotaped, their actions and comments may not reflect what they would be doing
when not being observed and recorded. But she said the new study is "a
nice complement to previous experimental data."
The study, while not directly related to self-esteem, sheds
light on why blindly pouring positive messages to children isn't effective,
Twenge said. "Self-esteem in and of itself doesn't lead to good things,
such as good grades or preventing bad behavior," she said. "It's
better to focus on self-efficacy - thinking you can do something - and self-control.
This type of praise, focusing on action, points to that."
The bottom line for parents is actually quite simple, study
author Gunderson said. "It's really about fostering the mindset that
challenge and effort are good, and you can always improve if you work hard."
Learn more about child development from the U.S. National
Library of Medicine.