STANFORD / U. CHICAGO (US) — Praising toddlers’ effort, not talent, leads to greater motivation and more positive attitudes about challenges later on, say psychologists.
We think our babies are so smart, so amazing, so good. But please, say the researchers, don’t tell them that.
“It’s better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing. ‘You worked hard on that’ versus ‘you’re so good at that,'” says Carol S. Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
In a new study, the team found that the kind of praise parents give their babies and toddlers influences the child’s motivation later on. It also plays a role in children’s beliefs about themselves and their desire to take on challenges five years later.
The kind of praise focused on effort, called process praise, “sends the message that effort and actions are the sources of success, leading children to believe they can improve their performance through hard work,” says Elizabeth Gunderson, assistant professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author on the study conducted while she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
The research, published online in the journal Child Development, is the first to analyze parent praise in a real-world setting. Previous studies have relied on experiments done in the lab.
“We’ve seen before that process praise, or praising effort, increases motivation and encourages strategies for handling failure, but no one had asked how this really works in a natural setting,” Dweck says.
For this study, researchers analyzed video of mothers interacting with their children at 1, 2, and 3 years of age. The scholars tallied the kind of praise each mother gave to her child and the amount, paying particular attention to the proportion of the praise that was directed at the child’s effort, such as “good throw,” versus praise for the child personally, such as “you’re so good at baseball.”
Five years later, when the children were 7 and 8 years old, the researchers interviewed the children, asking questions about their mindset. For example, “How much would you like to do math problems that are very easy so you can get a lot right?”
Toddlers who had heard praise commending their efforts were more likely as older children to prefer challenges than those who heard praise directed at them personally, the study found.
“‘You’re great, you’re amazing’—that is not helpful,” Dweck says. “Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing.”
Toddlers who heard praise directed at actions also were more likely to believe later on that abilities and behavior could change and develop.
“What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with,” Dweck says.
The amount of praise didn’t have an effect, the study found. It was more about the percentage of process praise compared to person praise.
“In addition, parents of boys used a greater percentage of process praise than parents of girls. Later, boys were more likely to have positive attitudes about academic challenges than girls and to believe that intelligence could be improved,” says co-author Susan Levine, professor in psychology at University of Chicago.
Researchers say their findings could help parents and early childhood educators guide children toward a mindset that fosters the value of working hard, confronting challenges, and learning how to deal with failure.
“Our message to parents is to focus on the process the child engages in, such as trying hard or focusing on the task—what specific things they’re doing rather than ‘you’re so smart, you’re so good at this,'” Dweck says. “Although it’s never too late to change, what you do early matters.”
Other authors include Stanford graduate students Sarah Gripshover and Carissa Romero.