BY BRUCE HENDERSON, PhD
“When we praise children, we communicate care for them and provide feedback for a job done well. We also send a message that influences the child’s understanding of his or her own motivation. That is where the real problems can arise.”
Praise is a great motivator. It makes us feel good and it provides us with feedback about the correctness of our performance. In general, it is good for us to praise our grandchildren. But we have to be careful. Too much praise or the wrong kind of praise can actually be harmful.
Some feel it dampens internal motivation
Some psychologists and educators have gone so far as to argue that praise, or any other kind of reward, undermines a child’s intrinsic, internal motivation, such as curiosity or the feeling of being competent. Their argument is that when children are rewarded for success, they come to believe that they performed a task solely to get the reward. If the reward is not available, there is no reason to do the right thing. The external motivation has undermined the internal reason for doing a good job. So, children who are rewarded for solving puzzles, recounting the contents of a book, or knowing arithmetic facts will learn not to do any of those things unless some kind of praise or reward is provided.
If praised too often, they begin to tune it out
The available research does not fully support that extreme version of how praise can be problematic. Appropriate praise, in moderate amounts, is not going to undermine a child’s curiosity or sense of competence. However, when children receive too much praise, they may begin to tune it out. Parents or grandparents who unceasingly praise their grandchildren will find the effects of praise diminishing. Perhaps more important than how much we praise is how we praise. Praise sends multiple messages. When we praise children we communicate care for them and provide feedback for a job done well. We also send a message that influences the child’s understanding of his or her own motivation. That is where the real problems can arise.
Praising them for being smart may encourage laziness
Grandparents think their grandchildren are precocious. When children say something clever, do something well at school, or beat us at a board game, we are likely to say something like: “Oh, you are so smart.” According to the research of Stanford University developmental psychologist Carol Dweck, that is where we go wrong. When we give praise that focuses on children’s ability, they are likely to attribute their success to a trait they possess—a certain amount of intelligence. That kind of attribution, repeated over many instances, is likely to make children form what Dweck has called “fixed” or “trait” beliefs about their own intelligence. If I have trait beliefs, I think have a certain amount of intelligence and I am not going to get any smarter. Effort does not matter. If I fail a task, it is because I’m just not smart enough to do it. Effort is not only a waste of time, it is a signal to others that I am not smart.
Linking praise to effort encourages incremental thinking
If we respond to children’s successes with something like: “Oh, you worked so hard to figure that out,” we send a different message. Then children are more likely to attribute success to having tried hard. When children are consistently praised in that way, they are more likely to form what Dweck calls “growth” or “incremental” beliefs or mindsets about their intelligence. Incrementalists believe they are just so smart right now, but by working harder or in different ways, can get smarter. Incrementalists believe challenges will help them get smarter. Failure is just information: try harder or find a new way. Incrementalists are the children who are most likely to actively explore novel environments, take on interesting, difficult problems, and create new ways of doing things.
And we all know you want your praise to foster your grandchild’s growth, and avoid the types of praise that could stunt his or her growth. See the sidebar for ways you can put this information to work for you, and happy grandparenting, one of the most important jobs you’ll ever do.
How you can encourage incremental thinking
What can grandparents do to help their grandchildren be incrementalists who will work hard and welcome challenges?
- Send incremental/growth messages by focusing praise on effort, not ability. Communicate the distinction between success based on natural gifts and success based on the child’s own hard work.
- Encourage children to take on challenging tasks. Make it clear that failure is acceptable and informative when it follows from effort.
- Use subtle, sincere praise. A smile, a wink, or a nod, especially from a special person, can be just as powerful as elaborate verbal praise that children will eventually see as empty.
- Finally, focus less on what your grandchildren produce and enjoy them for who they are.
Bruce B. Henderson has a PhD in child psychology from the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and teaches at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. He is the happy grandfather of two, Coles and Davis. He has consulted extensively with daycares and public schools and published numerous articles on children’s motivation and memory.