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Praise Kids' Efforts, Not Their Qualities?

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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."

The study, while not directly related to self-esteem, sheds light on why blindly pouring positive messages to children isn't effective, Twenge said. "Self-esteem in and of itself doesn't lead to good things, such as good grades or preventing bad behavior," she said. "It's better to focus on self-efficacy -- thinking you can do something -- and self-control. This type of praise, focusing on action, points to that."

The bottom line for parents is actually quite simple, study author Gunderson said. "It's really about fostering the mindset that challenge and effort are good, and you can always improve if you work hard."

More information

Learn more about child development from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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