Praise Effort, not Smarts

With the New Year upon us, it is the time for New Years Resolutions. Here’s one that may strike you as odd, but that you may want to consider for your family: praise your children less.

Odd as it sounds, this is a key insight by researcher Carol Dweck, as reported in the recent book “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children”, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.

While many parents and teachers believe they can strengthen children’s confidence and help them achieve more by praising them for their intelligence and achievements, Dr. Dweck’s team of researchers has discovered that praising smarts can lead to an avoidance of challenges.

In one experiment, the researchers asked 5th graders work on puzzles, and randomly assigned them to two groups. The first group was praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at this.” The second group was praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” This one sentence had a tremendous effect on the students’ subsequent performance, both with more difficult puzzles, and with puzzles of the same level of difficulty. The effort-group was eager to tackle challenges, and improved their score by about 30% in the same simple puzzles. The intelligence-group, on the other hand, dreaded the harder assignment, and decreased their score on the same simple puzzles by 20%.

As Bronson reports:

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of a child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. 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.

Other, longer-term research, showed a similar, sustained effect.

The message for educators and parents is clear: if we can lead children to embrace effort, to gain an attitude that success is under their control, to get them to view the world with a growth mindset, then we have done a lot to help them succeed, both in school and in life.

At LePort, we do our share. It is one of the core principles of our approach to provide students with meaningful challenges, and then to emphasize the effort those challenges require, making sure to celebrate with the students when their efforts result in success. From our website:

Because we expect each student to apply himself, to revise his work, to develop his skills, and because we emphasize that success is within his control, our approach helps students develop a mastery-focus and a growth mindset. Our students aren’t discouraged by a bad performance or a low grade – they persevere, because they have learned that with effort, they can make good things happen.

So as you start the new year, consider resolving to praise your child less. Or, more accurately, resolve to praise his effort, which is under his control, rather than his inborn skills, which aren’t subject to any New Year’s resolutions.

Heike Larson