Friday, September 30, 2011


As a teacher, praise is something I think about a lot.  My students always wanted to draw my attention to any of their small accomplishments - writing the "e" the correct way, solving a social problem, climbing to the top of the jungle gym.

And after reading this fantastic New York Times article about praise, I've been thinking about it a lot as it relates to Cole as well.

Let's face it, we all like our accomplishments to be noticed and appreciated.  Kids are no different - even Cole will struggle to pull a blanket down from his crib, then look over at me with a look of pride to see if I saw his effort and result.

But I have a little bit of a problem with praise.  I don't want Cole's focus with his accomplishments to be external praise.  I don't want him to do something just because I say "Good job". I don't want him to choose easy activities just because it will be easy to succeed.

More importantly, I want Cole to focus on the PROCESS of everything he does, not the RESULT. 

I am ashamed to admit that too often in my childhood, I chose a path that was easier just because I knew I would be successful.  Too often, I lacked confidence to try something new because I was afraid of failure.  And one of the reasons I believe I was like this was being labeled early on as "smart" and praised as such - I didn't want to fail, because I thought then I wouldn't be "smart".

Too often as parents I think we misunderstand the difference between acknowledgement and praise.  Babies and kids and adults need acknowledgement...we don't always need praise.  I shouldn't have to tell Cole "Good Job!" for eating his food - would I say that to an adult?  Or even to a five year old?  Not really necessary, right?  What I should tell him is a simple statement of fact: "You ate all your food!"  It's not praising him, but I am ACKNOWLDGING his effort and the process. This is an excellent article of better statements to use other than "Good job!".

Now, I'm not saying that I never praise Cole.  Of course I give him praise occasionally, when it is warranted.  But a simple, general "Good job" is not effective praise - for praise to actually work, it needs to be specific and for it to work better, it needs to be about the effort, not the end result.  Praise should also be honest - I'm never going to tell Cole, "You're the next Michealangelo!" because he's not.  He may have worked hard on a piece of art, but he and I both know that he's not as talented as a true artist.  It's the same as if I cooked Chris a total bomb of a meal (which NEVER happens) and he tells me it's fabulous.  I KNOW it's not fabulous, so I KNOW he's not telling me the truth and it makes me feel bad.  However, if he were to tell me thank you for making the effort to cook something, I feel ok about it.

Praising kids for effort gives kids something they can control.  Intelligence is innate, often not perceived as something that can be changed or improved.  But effort - that's something that kids can grow in, something they can control.

In the New York Times article mentioned above, the author discusses a study performed on a group of children.  Each student was given an easy puzzle to complete.  Half the kids were told, "You must be really smart at this!" and the other half were told, "You must have worked really hard!".  Next, the researchers offered the students a second puzzle to complete, with their choice of either a difficult puzzle or an easy one.  All the children who were praised for their intelligence wimped out and chose the easy one, while all the children who were praised for effort challenged themselves and tried the difficult puzzle.  Lastly, the kids were all given an "impossible" puzzle that no one completed.  But the "effort" kids were all encouraged and wanted another try, while the "smart" kids were eager to give up.

I never want Cole to rely on external praise from someone to build his self-esteem and self-worth.  I want his sense of accomplishment to come from within, because that will never change. 

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