We think our babies are so smart, so amazing, so good. But please, say Stanford researchers, don’t tell them that.
“It’s better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing. ‘You worked hard on that’ versus ‘you’re so good at that,’ ” says Stanford psychology ProfessorCarol S. Dweck. In a new study, Dweck, with graduate students Sarah Gripshover and Carissa Romero, found that the kind of praise parents give their babies and toddlers influences the child’s motivation later on. It also plays a role in children’s beliefs about themselves and their desire to take on challenges five years later.
The research, published online in the journal Child Development, is the first to analyze parent praise in a real-world setting. Previous studies have relied on experiments done in the lab.
“We’ve seen before that process praise, or praising effort, increases motivation and encourages strategies for handling failure, but no one had asked how this really works in a natural setting,” Dweck said.
For this study, researchers analyzed video of mothers interacting with their children at 1, 2 and 3 years of age. The scholars tallied the kind of praise each mother gave to her child and the amount, paying particular attention to the proportion of the praise that was directed at the child’s effort, such as “good throw,” versus praise for the child personally, such as “you’re so good at baseball.”
Five years later, when the children were 7 and 8 years old, the researchers interviewed the children, asking questions about their mindset. For example, “How much would you like to do math problems that are very easy so you can get a lot right? ”
Toddlers who had heard praise commending their efforts were more likely as older children to prefer challenges than those who heard praise directed at them personally, the study found.
” ‘You’re great, you’re amazing’ – that is not helpful,” Dweck said. “Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing.”
Toddlers who heard praise directed at actions also were more likely to believe later on that abilities and behavior could change and develop.
“What we found was that the greater proportion of process praise, the more likely the child was to have a mindset five years later that welcomed challenges and that represented traits as malleable, not a label you were stuck with,” Dweck said.
The amount of praise didn’t have an effect, the study found. It was more about the percentage of process praise compared to person praise.
Researchers also noted that parents praised the efforts of boys more than girls. Later, boys were more likely to try more challenging pursuits, the study found.
Researchers said their findings could help parents and early childhood educators guide children toward a mindset that fosters the value of working hard, confronting challenges and learning how to deal with failure.
“Our message to parents is to focus on the process the child engages in, such as trying hard or focusing on the task – what specific things they’re doing rather than ‘you’re so smart, you’re so good at this,’ ” Dweck said. “Although it’s never too late to change, what you do early matters.”
Other authors included University of Chicago psychology professors Susan Levine and Susan Goldin-Meadow and Temple University Assistant Professor of psychology Elizabeth Gunderson.