Praising Your Child

Congratulating kids for working hard may help them make the grade.

By Camille Chatterjee, published September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Common sense suggests that giving children positive feedback on school work will increase their interest in learning. But could we be damning them with the wrong kind of praise? Recent research indicates that congratulating kids for working hard -- rather than complimenting their innate ability -- is the best way to help them make the grade.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., and Claudia Mueller, both of Columbia University, told fifth-graders who worked on a set of math problems that they "must have worked hard," "must be smart," or simply that they "did well." Next, the students completed another problem set and were all told that they "did a lot worse." The result? The "hardworking" kids were much more likely to take problems home for extra practice, to say they enjoyed the tasks, and to perform well on later tasks than the "smart" students.

Children praised for their natural abilities were not so resilient. Their motivation and performance suffered after their "failure," and they tended to inflate their scores when reporting them to others. Ultimately, they began to measure their worth by their test results, believes Dweck. "The kind of praise that all of society thinks is wonderful is the kind of praise that makes kids very vulnerable," she says. "Parents need to focus on what children put into a task, rather than making implications about the worth of the child."