How many times have you told your child “Good Boy!” or “Good Girl!.” I know I did hundreds of times. It was a mommy reaction to my child’s attempt at accomplishment. Hit the ball during a softball game? “Good Girl!!” Create an amazing science project? “Good Boy!” It was an easy compliment that rolled right off the tongue.
According to a new study, I could have done a little better if I’d praised the actual action instead of just the child. Researchers at the University of Chicago and Stanford University studied the mother-child interactions over several years and discovered that the type of praise you give your child affects their attitudes towards meeting challenges in the future.
Specifically, praise with feedback about the child’s behavior and the choices he or she made helped them cope better with difficult experiences five years later, compared with praise focused solely on the child.
“This is something we suspected would be the case based on a lot of experimental research, and it’s exciting to see it play out in the real world,” says Elizabeth Gunderson, an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, who led the study while at the University of Chicago. “Praising the efforts, actions and work of the kid is going to be more beneficial in their long-term persistence and [desire] to be challenged and work hard in the future.”
Instead of just saying “good boy or girl”, you might say something like “you really worked hard at learning how to hit that ball, or “ that was a very creative choice for a science project. I like how you built it.” This kind of “process praise” focuses on the child’s accomplishment and effort instead of “person praise” that focuses on the child’s natural qualities.
While the difference may seem small, psychologists have made the distinction for years,. However, they haven’t known exactly how these two types of praise affect the child’s future development.
Researchers visited the homes of more than 50 toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 years old, and filmed their daily interactions with their parents during multiple 90-minute sessions. Five years later, the researchers followed up with the families, using questionnaires to measure the children’s attitudes toward challenges and problem solving. What they found was that the children who grew up with more process praise were more open to challenge and were able to come up with more ways to overcome difficult problems. These children were also more likely to believe they could improve their intelligence with hard work.
While all this is interesting, it’s also important to note that the children who received “person praise” didn’t suffer any negative effects. The study suggests that the “process praise” may teach children that their abilities and talents can be developed and improved instead of being fixed or not easily altered.
“This study is monumental,” says Carol Dweck, a co-author of the study and a professor at Stanford University whose earlier research laid the foundation for understanding the role of praise in child development. “To be videotaping these mother-child interactions and to be interviewing the mothers and children over the years is an enormous undertaking.”
The study also revealed some interesting findings about how praise affects boys and girls. Boys and girls received about the same amount of praise, but boys were much more likely to receive process praise – about 24%. Girls received only about 10% of this type of praise. Previous research suggested this pattern, but Gunderson says she was surprised by how great the difference actually was. She believes that the inequality could have consequences on how girls gage their progress as they move through school. It may also have some bearing on girl’s self –esteem issues that become more prominent among teens and pre-teens.
Next on the list, Gunderson says, is to see whether process or person praise leads to different behaviors. Current data only hints that children with more process praise may be more eager to embrace challenges, but whether they actually pursue these challenges and seek them out isn’t clear. Researchers are hoping to continue with their study and follow up with the children again in a few more years to find out if types of praise continue to shape their development.
Whether it’s process or personal praise, parents are shaping their child’s motivation and attitude beginning at a very young age.
All praise may not be equal, but it does have a positive impact. That’s something that all parents and caregivers should remember.
I just want to say, “Good parent. I really like the way you praised your child.”