Some Kinds of Praise May be Bad for Your Children – By Michael Hart, MA, CCC

smart childIt is considered common wisdom that praising children is good for their self-esteem and their development into successful adults. However, new research from the university of Columbia is shifting this paradigm on its head. The findings from this research are very important for parents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders, or anyone who is involved with children

In her quintessential research on the effect of praise on children, Professor Carol Dweck from the university of Columbia studied the effect of two types of praise on 400 fifth-graders. The students were at first randomly selected and were individually given a very easy test to complete. Upon the completion of the test, each student was told, “You must be smart at this” or, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the second phase of the experiment, the students were given the choice between doing an easy test and a harder test, with the caveat that they would learn a lot from the harder test. The majority of those who were praised as being smart chose the easier test. On the other hand, 90 percent of those who were praised for working hard chose the harder test. Dweck commented in her summary to the study saying that by given children the label of being smart, we may be setting them up to play it safe and be afraid of making mistakes in order to maintain the image of being smart.

In third segment of the study, the students were each given a much harder test, a test suitable for two grade levels above their age group. The findings from this part of the study are very interesting. Although, as could be expected, all students failed the test, the attitudes of the two groups were remarkably different. Those who were originally praised for being smart showed visible signs of stress during the test and afterwards assumed that their failure was because they weren’t smart. In contrast, the other group, who was praised for their effort, appeared more relaxed during the test and attributed their failure to not focusing hard enough. It appears from these findings that telling children that they are smart can lead to them taking failure more personally than others, and can also result in them being unduly stressed when faced with difficult challenges.

The fourth round of Dweck’s study shows another negative consequence of praising children for being smart: the students were given a test as easy as the first one in the study. The students who were praised for being smart did about 20 percent worse than they did before. Conversely, the other students, who were told that they must have worked really hard, did 30 percent better than they did on the first test. It seems from this part of the study that the fifth graders who were praised for being smart became discouraged after failing the hard test, whereas those who were praised for their effort was motivated to try harder. Dweck stated, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control.” She goes on to explain, “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

The findings from Dweck’s study can be applied not only to praise involving academic work, but can be a helpful reminder as we praise our kids about their sporting activities, art work, completion of chores, and other areas of their lives. Let us be mindful to praise in ways that motivate our children to take risks and not be afraid of failure; let us praise in ways that gives them resilience to continue trying despite failure; let us praise in ways that separate their achievements from who they are as persons.

Elim Counselling  Services©2015


About Elim

Elim Counselling Services is a Christian Counselling ministry that provides professional counselling for individuals, couples and families. If you are not familiar with Elim Counselling and your first contact with us is online, we would be happy to hear from you. To book an appointment or make an inquiry please contact us by calling (613) 699-1677 or by email at All inquiries are treated with the strictest of confidence.


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