Cam Lewis | Aug 8, 2017

Telling kids they’re smart. Can this really backfire?

I recently saw a short video by a Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In it she says "We've almost been brainwashed to say, 'You're so smart,'"

So what’s the problem? Per Dweck, this kind of praise can hold kids back.

Dweck went on to further explain why parents’ typical response to good grades, soccer goals, and other accomplishments doesn’t work. She went on to say that too much praise can put undue pressure on students to always be perfect and, when they are not perfect, become frustrated and/or depressed.

While I can see some of Dr. Dweck’s points, I don’t necessarily agree in her entire premise. However, it does raise an interesting topic of discussion. We definitely can’t praise everything as being “fantastic” or “outstanding” but I believe too much positive praise is way less damaging than too little.

Personally, I am fairly liberal with the praise but I also always remind my daughter that there is always someone that has worked harder or practiced more and therefore, may be better at something. At five and half years old she doesn’t always want to hear this but we do have to prepare our kids for the real world. Right?

However, while reading the comments section at the bottom of the article/video, I was very impressed with one of the suggestions from a long time teacher. It’s something I hope to personally try to put into action. Here is what the reader said:

“As a teacher for 41 years, I tried to use appreciative praise instead of evaluative praise with my students. I learned this concept in the writings of Dr. Haim Ginott, especially in his book, “Teacher and Child.”

The difference between the two types of praise is rather simple. Evaluative praise judges the individual (on results). This is probably the most typical type of praise we all use. However, appreciative praise is a little different. It shows appreciation for the individual’s work and efforts.

Here are some examples of evaluative praise:

“You’re so smart.”

“You are so well-behaved.”

“Your work is perfect.”

“You’re a great artist,” or

“You always turn in great work.”

These statements judge the individual and his or her effort. They impose high standards on the individual, but may leave the individual with a nagging feeling that he or she will always be expected to be perfect, great, well behaved, and smart. He or she must always achieve the same level of performance or he will be judged as inferior.

Appreciative praise is different in that it is non-judgmental. Here are some examples:

“I was impressed with your essay. It showed me that you were informed and organized. Your logical conclusion was very persuasive. Good job.”

“You worked hard at behaving well today. I was impressed.”

“Your poem made me feel the joy of running through a spring meadow.”

“Your painting is very colorful. It makes me feel happy. Is that what you felt when you painted it?” or

“Your math homework was neat and organized—like your solutions to the problems. Excellent work!”

These examples of appreciative praise focus on your feelings, not on the student or the actual results. Appreciative praise shows appreciation for his or her efforts, behavior, writing, or art. It does not focus on the student and/or your expectations for him or her. (Of course, there is a time for discussing expectations later but not at every step!)

Yes, I can hear some people saying something about coddling kids, not getting them ready for the real world or results do matter. Many of us has discussed the “every kid gets a trophy” issue and how it raises kids not ready for real competition. I personally think that is an entirely different discussion. Appreciative praise doesn’t overinflate the accomplishment (i.e. giving a trophy to a last place team) but shows appreciation for the effort. We want to encourage effort even if the results are not always what we hoped for.

At first, appreciative praise may not come easily to any of us but with practice, it gets easier. I think it can have a remarkably positive effect on children when they find that they are not being judged at every step. I think it’s something we all can work on.