Psychology of Parenting: Why Praising Your Kids Can Hurt Them

'NurtureShock' author Po Bronson debunks conventional parenting wisdom.

September 2, 2009, 4:11 PM

Sept. 3, 2009— -- For writer and father Po Bronson, yelling praise from the sidelines of a soccer game to his child has always been part of his parental territory. And what parent hasn't done the same, showering gushing platitudes like "You played great" or "You're so smart" at their children at every twist and turn?

But praising your kids, Bronson says now, is what can ruin them. In his latest book, "NurtureShock," written with Ashley Merryman, the science journalist explores some misconceptions about raising children and how certain modern parenting strategies, such as excessively praising children, can do more harm than good.

Bronson admitted, like others, he's guilty of showering his kids with general praise. Research suggests 85 percent of American parents believe it's important to tell their kids they're smart and to praise them for their intelligence.

"Kids become fixated on maintaining the image of being smart, of never getting anything wrong in front of people, of always looking like they've gotten everything right, of making it look effortless," said Bronson. "Because if you show effort, it's a sign you can't cut it on your natural gifts. And so they make safe choices. They choose classes that won't challenge them. They choose teachers and projects where they know they can get an A."

Bronson said he's trying to reform and all parents should too -- for their the sake of their children.

"The difference is a child who is truly motivated and interested in learning, versus a child who wants to memorize so they can get a good grade so they can keep hearing how smart they are," Bronson explained.

A decade of groundbreaking research suggests that constant praise can lead kids to lose self-confidence, not gain it, and make them actually perform worse, not better.

Bronson relies heavily on the research of Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University.

"I think the self-esteem gurus led us to believe we could hand our children self-esteem on a silver platter through our praise, through our words," said Dweck. "And we thought ... almost the definition of being a good parent was to keep handing the self-esteem to our child. But it doesn't work that way."

Over the past decade, Dweck has conducted a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders from different socio-economic groups across the country. The research provided the basis for one chapter of Bronson's new book and points to a stunning result: Not all praise is created equal. Telling children they're smart can actually hurt them, and you get a far better result if you praise children for challenging themselves, and for effort.

"Nightline" asked Dweck and one of her graduate students to show us how it works.

Mary, 9, and Jameson, 10, were given a series of IQ puzzles and asked to work on them silently. At the end, the researcher gave each child a score. The research assistant praised Mary for being smart, while Jameson was praised for working hard.

After reviewing Mary's answers, the research assistant lauded her: "Wow, you did really well at these problems. You got 8 -- that's a great score. You must be really smart at these problems."

If Dweck's theory holds, Mary will want to continue to look smart, and when given the choice, will opt for a test that shows it -- not something more challenging where they she could learn more.

In the next phase, when Mary was asked by the research assistant what kind of problems she would like to work on next, "problems that are pretty easy so you'll do well, problems that you're pretty good at so you can show that you're smart, or problems that you'll learn a lot from even if you don't look so smart," Mary chose problems to show that she's smart.

"Problems that I'm pretty good at -- so I can show I'm smart," Mary told the researcher. "I am smart."

Consider the difference with Jameson, who was praised for how hard he'd worked -- not for being smart.

"Well, you did really well on these problems. You got 8 -- that's a really high score! You must have worked really hard on these problems," the researcher said. Jameson agreed.

Dweck's research suggests that Jameson -- armed with praise for his hard work -- will want to challenge himself -- even though he got some problems wrong.

Following course, Jameson opted for "problems I'll learn a lot from even if I don't look so smart."

Bingo. But Dweck took the experiment one step further. Both kids were immediately given another test -- one that was much more difficult than the first and way beyond their grade.

While Mary actually performed extremely well, the researcher was discouraging, and asked her why she seemed to have more trouble with the second set of problems. A deflated Mary said that she wasn't smart enough.

"There are other people in my class that are smarter than me. ... I'm not really that smart because of that, because I'm not used to them [the problems]," she said. "I worked hard as I can, so I think I'm not smart enough. But I do think I'm really, really smart but not ready for the other problems. But I want to do them when I get home."

Jameson, who got only three answers right to Mary's six on the very difficult second test, remained undaunted, moving onto a third test and nailing it -- getting nine problems right.

But Mary seemed to crumble, getting only three right on the third test. And remember, she'd actually done twice as well as Jameson on the difficult second test. The point, Dweck said, is that praising children's intelligence makes them less resilient when they hit a bump in the road and less willing to challenge themselves.

"After they're praised for their effort, they enjoy being challenged," Dweck explained. "What we value here is the practice, the effort, the trying of many strategies, and then they can feel satisfied as long as they've been engaged in that way. But if you say we value how smart you are, how enjoyable can it be if you're not shining?"

Bronson said the sense of failure, induced by Dwek's experiment, made Mary perform worse than she could have. In turn, Jameson, who was praised for effort, learned strategies for concentrating and facing challenges.

"At the end of the day, on the medium test, he ends up doing a better job than Mary, who had actually performed at a higher level up until then," Dweck said.

Furthermore, Dweck's research showed that the brain itself is affected by the challenges it's given -- the harder the problems it wrestles with, the stronger it gets. In her latest project -- an online interactive program called Brainology -- Dweck bypasses parents and goes directly to the children, teaching them why it's important to tackle things that are hard.

"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."

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.

"I stopped at home, telling my children they were so smart, they were so great. But we'd go out to these school events, and I would hear all of these other parents praising their children. I would fall off the wagon around other parents. I became a social praiser," Bronson said. "And I started to feel like -- that it wasn't my child. My child was doing great at the new praise regimen. It was I who was suffering. The praise junkie wasn't my child; it was me."

But Bronson confirmed that there's no limit on one kind of support. Unconditional love is something parents can repeat and repeat.

"Telling your child you love them is something else," Bronson said. "You can tell your child you love them all you want."

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