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

Excessive praise also distorts children's motivation; they begin doing things merely to hear the praise, losing sight of intrinsic enjoyment. Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students' "shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions." When they get to college, heavily-praised students commonly drop out of classes rather than suffer a mediocre grade, and they have a hard time picking a major—they're afraid to commit to something because they're afraid of not succeeding.

One suburban New Jersey high school English teacher told me she can spot the kids who get overpraised at home. Their parents think they're just being supportive, but the students sense their parents' high expectations, and feel so much pressure they can't concentrate on the subject, only the grade they will receive. "I had a mother say, 'You are destroying my child's self-esteem,' because I'd given her son a C. I told her, 'Your child is capable of better work.' I'm not there to make them feel better. I'm there to make them do better."

While we might imagine that overpraised kids grow up to be unmotivated softies, the researchers are reporting the opposite consequence. Dweck and others have found that frequently-praised children get more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. Image-maintenance becomes their primary concern. A raft of very alarming studies—again by Dweck—illustrates this.

In one study, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: they have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.

In another study, students get a do-it-yourself report card and are told these forms will be mailed to students at another school—they'll never meet these students and won't know their names. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie.

When students transition into junior high, some who'd done well in elementary school inevitably struggle in the larger and more demanding environment. Those who equated their earlier success with their innate ability surmise they've been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery—increasing effort— they view as just further proof of their failure. In interviews many confess they would "seriously consider cheating."

Students turn to cheating because they haven't developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child's failures and insists he'll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can't acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can't learn from them.

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