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Praise Kids' Efforts, Not Their Qualities?

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From the tapes, instances in which parents praise their children were analyzed by whether they emphasized strategies, effort and action or positive qualities of the child. The researchers noted factors such as race, ethnicity and income level of the parents to help ensure the study results were not affected by that data. They did not assess, or control for, the child's level of intelligence.

Then, five years later, when the children were about 7 to 8 years old, the researchers followed up with the same families, assessing whether the children seemed to prefer easy or challenging tasks, and if they were easily frustrated when they hit a stumbling block.

In situations in which parents tended to praise actions more than a child's characteristics, the children reported having more positive attitudes toward challenges, were better able to come up with ways to overcome setbacks and believed that they could improve with hard work. The study also found that the total amount of praise did not affect the children's responses.

The researchers discovered a gender difference related to the praise style of parents. Although boys and girls received about the same amount of praise overall, boys tended to get more process praise than did girls. Five years later, boys on average were more comfortable facing intellectual challenges and were more likely to think they could become smarter through hard work than did girls.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said the study helps make the distinction parents need between communicating to children that they can accomplish something and just raising their self-esteem. "It means reinforcing to kids that they can do something," Twenge said.

While Twenge said she thought the researchers did a good job of controlling for outside variables, she noted that it is impossible to measure everything in this type of research, called a "correlational study." She also noted that any time parents are being watched and videotaped, their actions and comments may not reflect what they would be doing when not being observed and recorded. But she said the new study is "a nice complement to previous experimental data."

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