TUESDAY, Feb. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Telling your young children
that they are smart may not be all that wise.
A new study found that it's probably not helpful for parents to
shower their young daughters or sons with commentary meant to boost
self-esteem. Instead, the right kind of praise and encouragement
may help children be more open to change and eager for the harder
tasks that provide opportunities to learn.
The research suggests that toddlers whose parents regularly said
things like "You tried really hard on that," rather than
"Wonderful," may have an edge as early as five years later when it
comes to taking on challenges. This type of praise sent by parents
early on can affect how the children size up their capabilities,
"Telling kids they're intelligent rather than praising the positive steps they're taking to solve a problem as they play can make them question their intelligence when they encounter something that's harder for them to do," said study author Elizabeth Gunderson, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.
Gunderson said parents tend to establish one of two "praise
styles" early on, either focusing on what a child is doing or,
instead, on his or her personal characteristics. So, while one
parent might say something like "You kept trying until that puzzle
piece fit in there," another might instinctively say, "You're good
Focusing on the process or activity -- in this case, finding the
right puzzle piece -- communicates that effort and actions can lead
to success. Focusing on the child's characteristics seems to
unintentionally telegraph that his or her ability is fixed, she
Despite any differences in parents' natural style, parents can
be taught to deliver more process-oriented praise, Gunderson said.
"This research has definitely influenced what I do with my own
1-year-old son," she added.
For the study, published Feb. 12 in the journal
Child Development, the researchers videotaped 53 toddlers
and their parents interacting at home for 90 minutes. The parents
were told that they were participating in a study of child language
development, to avoid having them focus on what they were
specifically saying to their children.
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
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
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
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."
Learn more about child development from the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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