First, a shameless plug. Grab the June 2010 issue of Working Mom. I wrote an article about Singapore Math. It's quite the school buzzword these days, so I attempted to explain what it's about. There are tips on how you can incorporate Sing-Math concepts at home. Better than drill-and-kill methods, I promise. I also did a feature story on the effects of too much praise on children. Shocking but true: it breeds future underachievers. My draft of the article is posted below. Version polished by my lovely editor you can read for P120. But hey, that comes with the entire awesome Working Mom package!
It’s hard not to say, “good job” every time my daughter shows me her latest artwork or when she writes her name quite legibly for a 3-year-old. She has also started to read and I am impressed whenever she recognizes signs we pass by. I can’t help but pile on the wows--“wow, you really read that!” as I throw her a matching you-are-so-awesome-kiss.
There should be nothing wrong with letting my daughter know how proud I am of her early achievements. Children are told how much potential they have so they can rise to challenges and they don’t settle for mediocrity. We also want to build their self-esteem, right? This is why we tell them they’re so smart or they’re so galing. We put surprise notes in their lunchbox to tell them “you can do anything!” Then there are the star charts and reward stamps for every little task accomplished.
When Saying 'Good Job' Turns Bad
But if we pay attention to the growing body of research, we’ll see that too much praise and rewards can do our children more harm than good. US researchers have studied scores of middle and upper school underachievers -– from notable schools, with very involved parents –- who were once precocious youngsters. Parents, teachers and other adults couldn’t help but notice these early achievers so they got more than their fair share of good-jobs, stars and rewards.
Then on their way to middle school, all that praise backfired. How? As they realized that not everything comes easy. Handwriting needed a lot of practice. Scoring a goal was a struggle. Math wasn’t as joyful to learn as reading. The new teacher wasn’t easily impressed and had higher standards for good work. In middle school, challenge and failure hit them like ten-ton bricks.
Experts say, as children mature, encouragement is what we should emphasize—not praise. There is a difference between the two. But first, consider your child’s developmental stage. Babies and toddlers do benefit from praise directed at independent exploration. In a study of 24-month-old children, researchers observed how mothers responded to their toddlers while attempting a challenging task. These same families were invited back to the laboratory a year later and the children were tested again. Researchers found that the 36-month-old children who were most likely to tackle challenges—and to persist at a task—were the ones whose mothers had praised their independence at 24 months. The same results were seen among toddlers whose parents praised them specifically for proper behavior.
As your child turns into a preschooler, there’s a need to adjust your approach. It’s now time to reign-in the praise as you enter the world of big kids. Careful also with what you praise them for. If your child begins to display prodigy potential and you heap on the “you’re so smart” or “you’ve got the talent” – you could be setting her up for future underachievement. Because no matter how intelligent or talented any child is, she is bound to struggle with certain things. Someday, something will not come easy and instead of trying harder, a child whose ego has been over-stroked may opt to just… opt out.
The classic case of the underachiever—they’re afraid to do anything that could make them fail and lose the high praises they have learned to crave. Many underachievers are actually praise junkies.
Kids can also get the message that it’s either you’re naturally good at something or you’re not. They can be conditioned to think that if it doesn’t come easy or “naturally” there is no point in trying. You’ve probably heard “but mom, I just really suck at math!”
To condition your child to face challenges with a positive attitude, use encouragement instead. Developmental Psychologists Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper of Reed College in the US have analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise on children. They give us guidelines on how to do it right:
- Be sincere and specific with your praise. Praise only if you really mean it. Even young kids can sense insincerity or pandering. When praise is deserved, don’t say things like “you’re a genius!” Instead say, “You’re already learning how letters form words. You’re starting to read. That’s good!”
- Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change. To the same child above, you can say “the more you try to read other words, the better you will get, until you can read a book on your on.” Forget saying, “you’re so smart.” Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck explains, “emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no recipe for responding to a failure.”
- Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards. Saying “I like how you use different shapes and textures in your collage” gives your child useful feedback. Her work was acknowledged and at the same time, you taught her what your standards were for a good collage. Saying, “you’re amazing!” or “that’s a masterpiece!” is not only vague, it can send the message, “I expect nothing less than a Picasso-level masterpiece missy!”
- Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily. Once it’s well established your child has mastered a skill, temper down the praises. My daughter rightfully earned praise the first few times she revealed her reading precocity. After that, I had to stop the wows for every road sign she decoded or every book she devoured all by herself. My daughter once said, “Mama look it says e-le-va-tor.” I was tempted to say “oh-my-gawd you’re only three and you read that with no visual clue of an actual elevator!” Instead I just gave her a bright smile and said, “Yes that sign says elevator.”
- Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do. Your kid is a Lego brick master? Let him know you’re happy he works hard to build his creations every now and then. Do not call him Mr. Fantastic Future Engineer or tell him he’s “just awesome” every time he builds something. Yes, no matter how awesome his each-and-every Lego creation truly is.
- Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others. If you will dish out the occasional good job, emphasize the effort rather than the outcome. Your daughter won the Gold at her school’s Math Olympics? Do not to harp on the fact that she bested other kids. Social comparison praise develops poor losers. The motivation should be doing your best or improving your self—not clobbering the competition.
A Certified Genius Speaks
Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” A tad over-dramatic maybe, but Einstein was obviously very smart. The point is, whatever he achieved he had to work hard for. The Theory of Relativity did not just magically pop out of his head. Years of study, struggle and labor were involved.
We bring up Einstein’s work ethos because how we praise our children can make or break their ability to persist. Developmental experts believe persistence can be cultivated by using intermittent reinforcement. Washington University biologist Robert Cloninger explains, “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
Praise should not be withheld at all costs. It’s one way we show our kids we’re proud of them. As a motivating force it is quite powerful, but it does lose potency when overused. Use it way too much and praise can kill persistence--and even little Einsteins need persistence to make something out of all their potential.