I’m trying something new for today’s post…colliding my day job as a clinical social worker with my involvement with Dallas Dads Group. After a chat with a colleague last week, I realized that this concept is one that could be helpful for dads as we navigate parenthood, especially with our kids going back to school.
The concept comes from Chapter 1 of the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It’s an excellent book for any parent. Each chapter tackles an issue that is bound to come up for most of us. Chapter 1 is entitled “The Inverse Power of Praise”. As parents, we are inclined to try to boost our kids’ self esteem and help them feel good about themselves. The problem is, we need to be mindful of what exactly we say and what the impact will be.
The research discussed in this chapter comes from Dr. Carol Dweck, who developed a project to study how kids respond to praise. She took students individually and administered a simple test for which she knew they would do well. After each child finished the test, they were given one single line of praise. Some of the children were told “You must be really smart at this” and the others were told “You must have worked really hard.”
Each child was then told they could choose their second test. They were told one choice would be harder but they would learn a lot by trying it, or they could take another easy one. Of the kids who were praised for working hard, 90 percent chose to give the harder test a try. Of the kids who were told they were smart, the majority chose to take the other easy one. It seems the kids who were told they were smart felt they needed to live up to that praise by ensuring another success. They didn’t want to take the risk of trying the hard one and failing. In contrast, the kids who were told they worked hard were up for the challenge.
Dr. Dweck then gave all the kids a much harder test for their age. All of the kids had difficulty. However, the ones who were told they were hard workers lived up to that praise by giving it their all. They also indicated they enjoyed the challenge. The ones who were told they were smart indicated they were defeated and discouraged. Lastly, she gave a final test as easy as the first. The kids who were praised for working hard did 30% better on this final test, and the kids who were told they were smart did 20% worse.
If you’ve read this far, you probably get the point. Essentially, this comes down to praise for being, as opposed to praise for doing. When you praise a child for being, you’re locking them into something that they then need to continue to live up to. Any indication they can’t do so will cause distress. (As a side note, this is also why telling girls they are beautiful can be problematic). When you praise them for doing, you’re recognizing something they had a choice in: how much effort they gave. They can replicate effort no matter what the task is, and most likely they will be more successful as well. This same concept can be applied to other tasks, such as sports, art, and music.