The effects of praise:
What scientific studies reveal about the right way to praise kids
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
In many places, like China, praise is rare. People worry about
the effects of praise. That too much praise will inflate the ego. Make
people too big for their britches.
This seems to be an ancient concern.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers--people whose life-ways most closely
resemble those of our ancestors--are famously intolerant of big egos.
It used to be that way in the West, too. But today things are
different. Westerners praise each other all the time, and lavish praise
on their children. They believe praise is going to make kids
better--more motivated, more confident, more inclined to tackle
Does it really work that way?
In some cases, yes. For instance, moms who praise their
preschoolers for their good manners have kids with better social skills
(Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).
But in other cases, praise can actually undermine your child’s motivation.
What’s the right way to praise kids?
Good answers come from Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper,
psychologists who have analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects
of praise (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). They determined that praise can
be a powerful motivating force if you follow these guidelines:
• Be sincere and specific with your praise
• Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change
• Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
• Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily
• Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do
• Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to others
In addition, it’s important to be sensitive to your child’s developmental level.
I explain these guidelines—and the evidence supporting them—in more detail below.
Be sensitive to your child’s developmental level
Very young children thrive on praise
Babies and toddlers benefit from praise that encourages them to
explore on their own. In a study of 24-month old children, researchers
watched how mothers responded to their toddlers while they attempted a
Then, these same families were invited back to the lab a year later and kids were tested again.
Researchers found that the 36-month old kids who were most likely
to tackle challenges—and to persist at a task—were the ones whose
mothers had praised and encouraged their independence at 24 months
(Kelley et al 2000).
Older kids are more sophisticated and may interpret your praise in negative ways
Whereas very young children are likely to take your praise at face
value, older kids are a different story. As kids mature, they become
aware of your own possible motives for praising them. If they perceive
you to be insincere, they may dismiss your praise. They may also be
sensitive to being patronized or manipulated (see below).
Be sincere and specific
Insincere praise may harm self-esteem and damage relationships
Obviously, kids won’t feel very encouraged by praise if you seem insincere.
But insincere praise isn’t just ineffective. It can be damaging.
Kids might think you feel sorry for them or that you are trying
to be manipulative. Insincere praise might also send the message that
you don’t really understand your child (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
Do these problems arise for very young children? Probably not.
But once your child becomes mature enough to question your motives, she
may become sensitive to the effects of insincere praise.
To prevent the appearance of insincerity, avoid frequent,
effusive praise. And avoid praise that is sweeping or general. Kids are
more likely to doubt it.
Praise kids for traits they have the power to change
It might seem that praising your child’s intelligence or talent would boost his self-esteem and motivate him.
But it turns out that this sort of praise backfires.
Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated the effect in a
series of experimental studies: When we praise kids for their ability,
kids become more cautious. They avoid challenges.
It’s as if they are afraid to do anything that might make them fail and lose your high appraisal.
Kids might also get the message that intelligence or talent is
something that people either have or don’t have. This leaves kids
feeling helpless when they make mistakes. What’s the point of trying to
improve if your mistakes indicate that you lack intelligence?
For these reasons, it’s better to avoid praising kids for
ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly
change—like their level of effort or the strategies they use. For more
information on the
effects of praise on intellectual performance, click here.
Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
Some praise is merely about making a judgment “Good job!” Other
praise provides information about what the recipient did right: “I like
the way you begin your essay by describing the problem and explaining
why it’s important.”
The latter is called descriptive praise, and it is thought to be
more helpful than general praise. When you give a child descriptive
praise, you don’t just tell him he’s doing well. You give him specific
feedback, and you tell him something about your standards.
But there is an important caveat, argue Jennifer Henderlong
Corpus and Mark Lepper (2002). The standards you convey should be
reasonable. If you over-praise a child (e.g. “You’re amazing! I’ve
never heard anyone play the piano better!”), you may send the wrong
message. Your child might conclude that your standards are superhuman.
How can he possibly live up to that? Praise that conveys unrealistically
high standards can become a source of pressure, and make kids feel
Beware of praising kids for achievements that come easily
If you praise kids for easy tasks, kids may conclude there is
something wrong: Either you’re too dumb to realize how easy the task is,
or you think the kids are dumb (Meyer 1992).
Such interpretations are unlikely to occur to younger children.
But as kids mature, they become more sophisticated about the social
meaning of praise.
One experiment presented American kids (aged 4 to 12 years) with a
videotaped scenario depicting students at work. The scenario showed two
students solving a problem. Each performed equally well, but only one
student was praised.
The kids who watched the program were asked to judge the students’ effort and ability.
Kids of all ages agreed that the praised student tried harder.
But the older kids also inferred that the praised student had lower
ability (Barker and Graham 1987).
These reactions might be culturally specific, however. When a
similar experiment was conducted on Chinese students, older subjects did
not conclude that the praised person was inferior in ability (Salili
and Hau 1994).
The difference might reflect Chinese attitudes about praise and intelligence.
In China, praise is rarely given (Salili and Hau 1994). As a
result, people may be less likely to infer that praise is insincere or
patronizing. In addition, Chinese people are more inclined to view
intellectual achievements as a product of effort (Salili and Hau 1994;
Stevenson and Lee 1990).
Beware of over-praising kids for doing things they like anyway
It’s okay to praise kids for doing what they like to do. But be
careful not to go overboard—particularly with older kids. When you
praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually
reduce their motivation (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
For example, suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every
time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or
unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating
broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward
broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam
loses interest in eating broccoli.
Does this sort of thing really happen? It’s been well-documented
in cases where people are given tangible rewards each time they perform a
particular behavior (e.g., giving your child some money each time he
eats broccoli). The feedback appears to re-set a person’s attitude
(Lepper and Henderlong 2000).
There’s less research showing that social rewards—like praise—can
produce the same effect. However, a recent brain study reveals that
social rewards (like praise) and tangible rewards (like money) activate
the same regions of the brain (Izuma et al 2008). And a food-tasting
experiment performed on children found that praise, like tangible
rewards, made kids like a food less (Birch et al 1984).
But the key point seems to be that praise must be given every time, so that kids expect to be praised for the behavior .
When praise is unexpected or spontaneous, it remains a powerful motivating force.
So this doesn’t mean we can’t—or shouldn’t—praise our children
for good behavior or a job well done. But suggests we should be cautious
about overriding our kids’ natural sources of motivation.
Avoid praise that compares your child to others
At first blush, it might seem like a good idea to praise kids for
out-performing their peers. After all, research has shown that such
social-comparison praise enhances a child’s motivation and enjoyment of a
task (see review in Henderlong and Lepper 2002).
But there are at least two big problems with social-comparison praise.
Problem One: Social-comparison praise is only motivating as long as kids continue to finish first.
If their competitive edge slips, kids are likely to lose motivation.
In essence, kids who are accustomed to social-comparison praise become poor losers.
Consider this experiment on American 4th and 5th graders (Corpus
et al 2006). Kids were given a set of puzzles to complete and received
• social-comparison praise
• mastery praise (i.e., comments about how the child had mastered the task)
• no praise at all
Next, kids completed a second task. This time they were left without clear feedback about how they’d done.
How did this uncertainty affect each child’s motivation?
It depended on what kind of praise kids had received earlier.
Those who had received social comparison praise suffered a loss of
motivation. But kids who had received mastery praise showed enhanced
In other words, a history of social-comparison praise backfires
the minute kids stop hearing that they’ve outperformed their peers.
Problem Two: Social-comparison praise teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal.
When kids decide that the goal is to outperform other kids, they lack
intrinsic motivation for a task. Work is only interesting insofar as it
permits them to show that they are the best.
Even worse, these kids are so wrapped up in maintaining their
competitive standing that they avoid challenges and opportunities to
learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison
praise doesn’t prepare kids for coping with failure. Instead of trying
to learn from their mistakes, these kids respond by feeling helpless
(Elliot and Dweck 1988).
References: The effects of praise
Barker GP and Graham S. 1987. Developmental study of praise and blame
as attributional cues. Journal of educational psychology 79(1) 62-66.
Birch LL, Marlin DW, and Rotter J. 1984. Eating as the “means”
activity in a contingency: Effects on young children’s food preference.
Child Development 55: 431-439.
Corpus J, Ogle C, and Love-Geiger K. 2006. The Effects of
Social-Comparison Versus Mastery Praise on Children's Intrinsic
Motivation. Motivation and Emotion 30(4): 333-343.
Elliot ES and Dweck C. 1988. Goals: An approach to motivation
and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology 54: 5-12.
Garner PW. 2006. Prediction of prosocial and emotional competence
from maternal behavior in African American preschoolers. Cultur Divers
Ethnic Minor Psychol. 12(2):179-98.
Hastings PD, McShane KE, Parker R, and Ladha F. 2007. Ready to
make nice: parental socialization of young sons' and daughters'
prosocial behaviors with peers. J Genet Psychol. 168(2):177-200.
Henderlong J and Lepper MR. 2002. The effects of praise on
children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological
Bulletin 128(5): 774-795.
Izuma K, Saito DN and Sadato N. 2008. Processing of social and monetary rewards in the human striatum. Neuron. 58(2):284-94.
Kelley SA, Brownell CA, and Campbell SB. 2000. Mastery motivation
and self-evaluative affect in toddlers: longitudinal relations with
maternal behavior. Child Dev. 71(4):1061-71.
Lepper MR and Henderlong J. 2000. Turning “play” into “work” and
“work” into “play”: 25 years of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic
motivation. In C Sansone and JM Harackiewicz (eds), Intrinsic and
extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance.
San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Meyer W.-U. 1992. Paradoxical effects of praise and criticism on
perceived ability. In: W. Strobe and M. Hewstone (eds): European review
of social psychology, volume 3. Chichester, England: Wiley.
Mueller CM and Dweck CS. 1998. Praise for intelligence can
undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal for Personality
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Salili F and Hau KT. 1994. The effects of teachers’ evaluative
feedback on Chinese students’ perceptions of ability: A cultural and
situational analysis. Educational Studies 20: 223-236.
Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990. Contexts of achievement: a study
of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev.
Content of "Effects of praise" last modified 11/08