How to praise others

I just read an article that claims generic praise doesn’t work. Telling kids they’re smart or a natural can actually reduce their performance instead of enhancing it.

The key is to praise effort, not natural intelligence.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.

I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

This is a big shift for me, but I’m going to try it out. I also really like the idea of teaching your children that their brain is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Even Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” That attitude may have been a major factor of his success. If we think we’re smart, it’s easy to become discouraged at the first sign of difficulty. However, if we believe that everyone has to deal with hard problems and not everything comes easily, we will be willing to work through the hard problems until we find a solution.

Again, here’s the article. It’s worth a read.


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  1. How/Where did you happen upon this article? I haven’t read the whole thing through, but the concept seems like an interesting one, and on the face of it seems like a useful, valid idea. Good job finding it — by your effort, not by your natural ability ;) — and thanks for sharing.

    Comment by DaveH on February 21, 2007 @ 8:32 pm
  2. I saw it once on one of the social bookmarking sites (digg or reddit I’m guessing) and glanced at it but ignored it. Then I saw it again somewhere else and decided to read it and was impressed. I think it makes a very good point about the value of praising effort, and it’s not something I often do.

    Comment by dan on February 21, 2007 @ 8:38 pm
  3. great article. It had some interesting insights.

    Comment by whaleman on February 22, 2007 @ 7:09 am
  4. Wow, I really enjoyed that article! Intuitively I do some praise of effort, but the article really brought the subject to my conscious level and presented a lot of findings in a fairly cohesive fashion so it had a big impact with me. It’s funny how the notion of generic praise and praise of attributes seems right, but when the article shows the unanticipated negative side-effects and how the praise of effort produces results, it was one of those “of course that’s right” moments for me. Good find!

    Comment by Kris on February 23, 2007 @ 1:53 pm
  5. I’m glad you guys liked it. I agree with Kris – it seemed obvious when I read it, but it’s anything but obvious. I need to read it again to make sure it’s sinking in.

    Comment by dan on February 23, 2007 @ 2:41 pm

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