If you have been reading the news recently, you’ve probably seen something about how praising children too much can lead to their inability to handle failure, less motivation, and even to an inflated sense of self (or worse narcissism). If you are like me, you are left wondering what to do?
Here is one simple and easy way to encourage your children without the pitfalls of praise.
Give them a big High Five!
Brad Morris and Shannon Zentall are a husband-wife team who study education, parenting and child development. Shannon is a friend of mine and also happens to have had the same graduate advisor as I did. I think they are brilliant for coming up with this study.
As they put it, research has looked at clear-cut verbal praise, but that is only one way children are praised in the real world. More often children are praised ambiguously (e.g. yay!, Wow! Good job!), rather than in a clear-cut manner. One study showed that about 66% of the praise given to toddlers during free play was ambiguous praise. Some of that ambiguous praise could also be in the form of hand gestures like a thumbs up or a high five.
In their study, they looked at kindergarteners and examined four types of praise: praising a personal trait “you are a good drawer,” praising a child’s effort “You did a good job working on that drawing”, ambiguous verbal praise “Wow!”, and ambiguous gestural praise (thumbs up & high five). This is what they found:
- Children who were “trait” praised (e.g. you are a good drawer) were the least motivated on a task and showed less enjoyment for the task.
- Children who were praised on their effort (e.g. you worked hard on that drawing) or given ambiguous praise (e.g. Wow! High Five) showed higher task enjoyment and persistence, even after task errors.
In other words, ambiguous praise worked just as well as praising a child’s effort.
Children attributed a high-five or a “Wow!” to their hard work.
And not only that, but the children who felt the most positive about themselves and their drawings were the ones who received the gestural praises — the thumbs up or the high five. I think this makes sense. When parents or teachers observe a child accomplish something and we are genuinely happy for them or impressed we say “High Five!” in a celebratory tone and hold up our hand.
In doing this, we are sharing in their sense of accomplishment and we celebrate the moment with them.
This is a little different than offering praise, which makes children realize we have recognized their work. With an enthusiastic high five, we are joining them in their success instead of simply recognizing it.
So, next time your child accomplishes something, join in the fun and give them a big high five!!!
Here are some other articles about how to praise children:
Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset From Education Week
This post is a part of my series on empowering children.