At pick up one recent afternoon, parents at a Burbank preschool received a cautionary note. It wasn't a notice about lice or eating too much sugar. Instead, parents were advised against constantly telling their toddlers "good job!" and offered other suggestions on how to encourage them.
The newsletter admonishment shows that research into the negative effects of too much praise is now fairly well-known and accepted — at least by early childhood experts. It also shows that parents aren't listening.
“Praising talent and ability makes kids afraid of difficulty and it makes them wilt when they have setbacks,” said Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck, who has done the seminal research on the negative effects of unending praise.
When parents praise kids for talent or intelligence, Dweck said, they’re making it harder for them to deal with life.
“By 3 years of age,” Dweck said “you see kids who don’t want to try anything hard and give up really easily, get upset even when they make mistakes.”
Dweck’s most recent study involved whether praise children received between the ages of 1 and 3 had any effect on the child at ages 7 and 8. She said she found that it can harm children’s motivation and desire to take on challenging tasks later in their childhood.
Dweck’s research is not under the radar. Journalists have been reporting on Dweck’s findings for more than a decade. But parents still struggle, in part because of peer pressure.
“There’s a lot of pressure to make sure your kids are happy,” said documentary filmmaker and mother of two Ramona Persaud. “And they need to be happy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And when they’re not happy, it is your fault as the parent.
“No one wants to be the bad mommy," added Persaud, who's working on a film about brain-based learning that shows, among other things, how to engage children without praising their every step. "So it takes a lot of thickening of the skin and wherewithal to say, no, I’m sorry, you’re not doing this well.
The parental praise movement, as Dweck calls it, goes back to the Baby Boomers' rebellion against the disciplinarian parenting style they grew up with. This new generation wanted to build kids’ self esteem. Books were published on the subject and they became bibles for new parents in the 80s and 90s.
Author Po Bronson said he thought praising his child was “what you need to do…to build up your kid’s sense of self.”
Then he ran into Dweck's research. Bronson has since written articles and devoted a chapter in his book, Nurture Shock, to the negative effects of praise.
The research convinced him to praise his son less. But as good as he was at home, it was hard to follow through on the playground, where other parents were lavishing their children with compliments.
“They are praising their child telling him 'you’re doing great, you're so smart,' ” Bronson said. “And I didn’t want my kid to think I didn’t feel as good about him as they felt about their kids. So I was sucked into it.”
Bronson calls himself a “social praiser.” He said the reason parents continue to praise kids even in the face of experts’ advice that it is harmful is that it's a way of showing unconditional love.
And not all praise is bad. Dweck said kids who are praised for their effort become interested in challenges. That kind of praise sounds like: "Wow, you really tried a good way" or "you worked hard on that."
Dweck also suggested that the conversation about the dinner table focus at least part of the time on the hardest things children had to overcome that day. That's because kids need to understand that learning new things can be hard, requiring grit and perseverance.
“When a parent praises the process it keeps the child engaged," Dweck said. "It encourages the child to keep at it."