But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort— instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it's also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located this neural network running through the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum. This circuit monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there's a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it's telling the rest of the brain, "Don't stop trying. There's dopa [the brain's chemical reward for success] on the horizon." While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.
What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?
Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. "The key is intermittent reinforcement," says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. "A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they'll quit when the rewards disappear." That sold me. I'd thought "praise junkie" was just an expression— but suddenly, it seemed as if I could be setting up my son's brain for an actual chemical need for constant reward.
What would it mean, to give up praising our children so often? Well, if I am one example, there are stages of withdrawal, each of them subtle. In the first stage, I fell off the wagon around other parents when they were busy praising their kids. I didn't want Luke to feel left out. I felt like a former alcoholic who continues to drink socially. I became a Social Praiser.
Then I tried to use the specific-type praise that Dweck recommends. I praised Luke, but I attempted to praise his "process." This was easier said than done. What are the processes that go on in a five-year-old's mind? In my impression, 80 percent of his brain processes lengthy scenarios for his action figures.
But every night he has math homework and is supposed to read a phonics book aloud. Each takes about five minutes if he concentrates, but he's easily distracted. So I praised him for concentrating without asking to take a break. If he listened to instructions carefully, I praised him for that. After soccer games, I praised him for looking to pass, rather than just saying, "You played great." And if he worked hard to get to the ball, I praised the effort he applied.
Just as the research promised, this focused praise helped him see strategies he could apply the next day. It was remarkable how noticeably effective this new form of praise was.
Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal "You're great—I'm proud of you" was a way I expressed unconditional love.