Psychologists have long been telling parents that praise is good for children. But, it turns out praise comes in different forms—from “You’re so smart” to “You got a good grade because you worked hard.” The distinction between these two praise statements is critical and affects how children view themselves and tackle their schoolwork as they get older.
“You’re so smart” praises the child, a form of person praise. One would think this is a perfectly fine compliment, but person praise has been shown to undermine a child’s motivation and view of his or her intelligence. Saying, “You got a good grade because you worked hard,” addresses a child’s diligence and effort—the process. “Process praise” can focus on effort or the strategies a child uses.
Do you use person or process praise?
Previously, the distinction between the two types of praise has been recognized in laboratory settings with young children, but researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago led by Elizabeth Gunderson wanted to know: What effect does parent praise at home have on children? They observed 1- to 3-year-olds interacting with their parents, and again when the children were in second and third grade. They found that the children who received process praise “had a greater desire for a challenge.”
According to this 2013 study, published in Child Development, process praise results in a child believing that intelligence is malleable, not fixed. Children who receive process praise from parents develop what the researchers call “incremental motivation or the belief that intelligence can be developed.” The authors explained it this way: “Children who hear a greater proportion of process praise (e.g., “you worked hard”) may come to believe that the sources of their accomplishments are effort and deliberate practice, whereas children who hear a greater proportion of person praise (e.g., “you’re so smart”) may come to believe that the sources of their accomplishments are fixed traits.”
Does early at-home process praise hold?
Gunderson and her team went back to see how the children were doing in fourth grade, specifically in math and reading comprehension. They wanted to know if parents’ early process praise was still at work as the children got older and the work got more difficult.
Their 2017 study, “Parent Praise to Toddlers Predicts Fourth Grade Academic Achievement via Children’s Incremental Mindsets,” published in Developmental Psychology, helps to explain why some children are more motivated to do better in school than others. The amount of process praise 1- to 3-year-olds heard directly related to their incremental motivation in fourth grade. Conversely, the children who received less process praise in their early years were less likely to be incrementally motivated.
The two studies present the relationship between parental praise before a child enters school and the formation of incremental motivation and scholastic achievement during the elementary school years.
Praise is like medicine
Although Gunderson’s two studies had a small sample size of 53, the results, especially when combined with the positive findings from lab studies, tell parents that it’s probably a good idea to heavy up the process praise. Instead of saying, “You're great at building things,” a statement that praises the child, try, for example, “You built that birdhouse so it’s safe for baby birds. How did you do that?” Asking how your child made the birdhouse safe for baby birds puts the emphasis on his skill set and praises the process he used. (I present many more examples of process praise in How Proper Praise Helps Children: Six paths for maximizing your compliments.)
In his 1965 book, Between Parent and Child, Hyman Ginott wrote:
“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions.There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.”
Accepting that praise is a form of emotional medicine for children, one type of praise seems to be better than another.
Ginott, H. G. (1965). Between parent and child. New York: Macmillan. p. 39.
Gunderson, Elizabeth A.; Gripshover, Sarah J; Romero, Carissa; Carol S. Dweck, Carol S.; Goldin-Meadow, Susan; and Levine, Susan C. (2013) “Parent Praise to 1-3 Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later.” Child Development: 84(5): 1526–1541. doi:10.1111/cdev.12064
Gunderson, Elizabeth A.; Sorhagen, Nicole S.; Gripshover, Sarah J; Carol S. Dweck, Carol S.; Goldin-Meadow, Susan; and Levine, Susan C. (2017). “Parent Praise to Toddlers Predicts Fourth Grade Academic Achievement via Children’s Incremental Mindsets.” Developmental Psychology. DOI 10.1037/dev0000444
Henderlong, Jennifer and Lepper, Mark R. (2002) “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis.” American Psychological Association: Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 128, No. 5, 774–795 0033-2909/02/ DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.128.5.774
Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). "Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75(1) DOI 10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.206