Praising Children: The Type of Praise Matters

The topic of praising children has become passionately debated of late.   While it generally has been highly encouraged for decades as a way to motivate kids and build self-esteem, there has more recently been some concern raised that praising children too much might lead to a lack of effort and a generation too dependent on the opinions of others.   In most of these discussions, praise is  considered to be a unitary concept. Some researchers, however, have questioned this uniformity and have hypothesized that different types of praise may have different effects.  Indeed, some short term experimental studies have suggested that process praise in particular, which focuses on effort and actual behaviors rather than character traits, leads to kids being less likely to give up during a challenging task.  What has been missing, however, are studies that are more naturalistic in design and include the kind of praise parents give to their children every day.

Photo by stockimages

Photo by stockimages

That is where this recent study by Gunderson and colleagues, published in the journal Child Development, comes in.  She and her colleagues examined whether different types of parental praise is associated with a child’s motivational frameworks and the way they tend to attribute causes of success or failure. The subjects were 53 child/parent dyads from the Chicago area. When the child was approximately 1, 2, and 3 years, video recordings were made of the child acting regularly at home. The transcripts were coded and amount of praise measured (although the examiners did not disclose that this was the variable of interest at the time). Coders quantified the amount of process praise, namely praise devoted to what a child did or how they did it, versus person praise, such as saying a child is smart or talented, that refers to a more fixed trait or characteristic. When the children were 7 to 8 years old, they completed questionnaires related to the degree to which a child believed in what is called an incremental framework, which includes ideas that traits are more malleable and success due more to effort than intrinsic fixed characteristics.

Overall, praise was found to account for 3% of parent utterances and this amount varied quite a bit from parent to parent.   As hypothesized, the amount of process praise, but not other types, was significantly related to children believing success was more due to effort than innate ability.  Another important finding was that process praise accounted for about 20% of total praise and was found to be given more to boys than girls.  The authors concluded that their results support the idea that praise which targets effort and strategy (e.g. “You really worked hard completing that puzzle!”) can contribute positively to a child’s belief system relative to praise focused on specific traits, (i.e. “You are so smart!”).

The authors are currently looking at the degree to which these styles predict actual academic success in future publications, Dr. Gunderson stated in her recent Grand Rounds presentation here at the Department of Psychiatry.  She acknowledged that these data do not speak directly to questions about overpraising, but suggested that the specific type of praise might be an important variable to consider in ongoing discussions about praise.  Another point worth making in my view is that while there may be some families that overpraise their kids, it is also true that there continue to be many children growing up in more hostile environments who are routinely subjected to harsh insults and humiliation and starving for any kind of positive and encouraging words.



Gunderson EA, et al.  Parent Praise to 1-3 Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development 2013;84:1526-1541.

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