Psychology of Parenting: Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

"It teaches them that every time they stretch themselves to learn something new, their brain forms new connections," Dweck said. "The kids say, every time I'm paying attention in school, I picture my neurons making new connections."

To Praise or Not to Praise

While Dweck's research suggests parents need to stop praising their kids in a generalized way, with catch phrases like "You're so smart" "You're great," praise given correctly -- for effort or for specific accomplishments -- "I really liked how you passed the ball to Johnny" or "You worked really hard on the field today" can be helpful, as opposed to "You're the best soccer player ever!"

"It's hard to not praise your kids. We want to praise our kids, and we love doing it," Bronson said. "What's hard as a parent when you give this specific praise is you feel like you have left some part of this child unloved. You haven't given them this broad unconditional love. You have loved only one little behavior, and as a parent, this feels very unnatural to us."

Psychologist Florrie Ng was interested in studying cross-cultural parenting. She conducted research while she was at the University of Illinois, with children and their mothers in Illinois and Hong Kong. She tested kids with a similar pattern-matching test used by Dweck.

During a five-minute break, American mothers were given their child's score. They were then told that their child did not perform well, regardless of their child's actual score, and were then instructed to talk to their child about the test. During the sit-down with their kids, the American mothers did not mention their child's "poor" score, but instead offered their child praise and presents, regardless.

"We saw them ignoring -- completely ignoring -- their child's failure. And not willing to help them, and if anything, praising them for their intelligence, or saying, 'Don't worry, 'You're going to do great,'" Bronson said.

By contrast, when mothers in Hong Kong were told their child hadn't performed well on the same test, they addressed the issue with their children, Bronson explained, working through the problems with their children and encouraged them to stay focused.

When the American and Chinese children were tested again, following the one-on-one sit-down with their mothers, the Chinese performed 33 percent better than in earlier tests. Ng plants to continue her research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"You might think that these Chinese mothers were cold and inconsiderate and cruel and harsh to their children. But when you watch the videotapes, these mothers are touching their child. They're loving, they have their arm around their child, they are stroking them, they are just as affectionate as the American mothers were," Bronson said.

"As American parents, we can be loving and affectionate and supportive at the same time as we are directing our child's attention to better strategies to improve and to learn," Bronson said.

"The child wants to do well on the test; help the child do well on the test. Don't do things that are just going to make the child underperform on the next test."

Bronson said no parent is perfect, but that parents should aim to keep general praise to a minimum, less than 25 percent of the time. But Bronson admitted that it's not easy -- even for him.

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