In an excerpt from his new book, “Pride & Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems,” Dr. Kenneth Barish discusses an often-heated point of debate: are we praising our kids too much or too often?
Dr. Barish challenges what many might consider conventional wisdom – he doesn’t believe it’s possible to over-praise children. While he doesn’t believe in empty praise, such as simply telling them they’re wonderful or special for no particular reason, he says that praise doesn’t hurt kids. What kids need, he says, is the right kind of praise.
He goes on to cite the research of psychologist Carol Dweck, who found that praising children’s abilities, rather than their efforts, could be harmful. These studies demonstrated that children need to be taught that their effort is the key to their success – not any sort of innate ability. Children with a “fixed” mindset believe that abilities are unchangeable traits. However, children with a “growth” mindset believe that their abilities can improve if they put in enough effort.
While children with a fixed mindset will experience anxiety when faced with challenges, and try to avoid anything that might “test” the worthiness of their abilities, children with a growth mindset will regard potential failures as learning experiences. So children shouldn’t be praised for their intelligence, or any other innate traits. Instead, they need to be praised for their accomplishments – and when they fail, for the effort they put in. This growth mindset, Dweck’s research shows, improves effort, achievement, motivation, and the ability to respond to stress in a healthy way – even in high school students.
Dr. Barish also dismisses the idea that children can become “praise junkies,” seeking unhealthy approval from others to validate themselves. He writes:
For this reason, when we praise our children, we do not create an addiction to praise. In fact, the opposite is true. Children are more likely to become praise junkies in the absence of our praise and approval.
When children feel proud, when they have been successful at any task, they instinctively look to others to share this feeling. Kids need this acknowledgment. Without sufficient praise, a child will suffer symptoms—especially discouragement and lack of enthusiasm—or he will seek this nutrient elsewhere, or he will become angry and demand praise, even if it has not been wholly earned. I therefore believe that we should offer children generous praise for all of their efforts, including their good behavior. Over time, they will come to learn that praise is earned—by hard work and good deeds.
Photo credit: Michael Miner