Read Excerpt: 'NurtureShock' by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were "the biggest disappointment of my career." Now he's on Dweck's side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction. He recently published an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents' pride in their children's achievements: it's so strong that "when they praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves."

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. According to Dweck, the biggest mistake parents make is assuming students aren't sophisticated enough to see and feel our true intentions. 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 seven— take praise at face value: older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies during which children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer's findings, by the age of twelve, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it's actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. They've picked up the pattern: kids who are falling behind get drowned in praise. Teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it's a teacher's criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student's aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

New York University professor of psychiatry Judith Brook explains that the issue is one of credibility. "Praise is important, but not vacuous praise," she says. "It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have." Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

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