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The Inverse Power of Praise (2007) (nymag.com)
69 points by wengzilla on Jan 2, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

Should have (2007) in title, as this has been submitted here before, and by now there ought to be some follow-up journalism on this issue, perhaps even from the keyboard of the same author. (As a parent, I am continually revising my opinions about parenting, and I hope the author is too.)

Among the several previous submissions,[1] the submission with the most comments seems to come from a follow-up piece.[2] But the print-formatted story with that submission doesn't seem to load properly, and a lot of the comments look like they came from people who didn't read the story (as I cannot read that story just now).

Carol Dweck[3] is one of the main researchers on attributional style and what that does to motivation.

[1] https://www.hnsearch.com/search#request/submissions&q=Praise...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2237874

[3] http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?articl...

Here is Dweck's book. Have heard great things about it, but still sitting in my inbox.


I found Mindset to be a good book. Here is my summary:

Two mindsets:

Fixed mindset - talents, abilities and intelligence are fixed, endowed

Growth mindset - talents, abilities and intelligence are learned and can be developed

These mindsets are learned, and have fundamentally different reactions to challenges.

The two-mindsets model is a simplification for the purposes of explanation.


The growth mindset embraces failure as a necessary part of learning. In fact failure is a indicator of an area for potential growth, if the opportunity is taken to overcome that failure. The fixed mindset avoids and fears failure; it is taken as evidence of a hard limit of your endowed talent.


The growth mindset sees effort as necessary to mastery. Almost any level of mastery may be attainable with the right regimen of practice. Obstacles are a normal part of mastery and must be overcome as a matter of course in order to grow. Criticism is not taken personally, but used to indicate areas for improvement and growth.

The fixed mindset sees effort as producing only small effects compared to their fixed ability. May be more prone to give up in the face of obstacles since it is thought that there is no new mastery to be gained. Criticism is more likely to be taken personally, as the individual identifies with the perceived limits of their ability and thinks that improvement is impossible beyond a certain point.

Perceiving others

The growth mindset is not threatened by others’ abilities. Others’ examples may serve to inspire. The fixed mindset is more likely to be jealous of others’ abilities since they are perceived to be highly desirable gifts and the result of luck and circumstance.

Teaching Children

Praise children by emphasizing their work and persistence. Do not use labels like “smart” or “gifted” that would reinforce a mindset of fixed abilities.


Growth oriented mindset is more likely to be understanding and ready to learn from experience. Fixed mindset sees problems as a result of unchangeable personal attributes and are pessimistic about change. More likely to have unrealistic expectations, like not having to work at a relationship that is “meant to be”.


Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Wilma Rudolph are given as examples of overcoming early setbacks with a growth mindset.

Last chapter is a “workshop” of situations and questions to help you develop a growth mindset.

Wow, what a great summary. Thanks. Now I can move it back to the bottom of my inbox. So long NY resolutions!

There's a great graphic summarizing fixed vs. growth mindsets: http://www.dolezalek.com/chris/Mindset.htm

I used to be this way, grew up being told I was smart, scored extremely high on standardized tests with minimal effort... I viewed those who had to work extremely hard as lesser individuals, thinking that I could work as hard as them at any time if I wanted to truly showcase my ability.

The truth is that actually putting in the time and effort when the time came proved to be far more difficult than I had believed all along. It took something that I wanted desperately to be good at, but couldn't just pick up in a weekend to make me change my views. Programming was/is it for me. There's more to learn than I could ever hope to understand and it has been a humbling experience to say the least.

Everyone is an incomplete person in some way. I think my flaws are characteristics inherent in my being that would have been that way had people told me I was smart or not. I knew pretty early on that things came quickly to me; the validation may have inflated my ego, but I don't know that it outright caused me to run from challenges along the way. I did that on my own. Sigh.

I had a similar experience, as I'm sure most people with above-average intellect did. But you didn't do that on your own, that's blaming an immature mind for quite the sin it cannot yet comprehend.

The important thing is that you internalized the lesson at some point in your life. As have I. Many never do (just look at the entitled people who complain about worsening conditions on reddit).

This explains a lot to me, about my own life (anecdotal experience, I know...)

Since I can remember I am "Very Smart"[0], I was told that by my parents, teachers, and lots of other adults.

In the first years of high school, I would get the best grades on math without even studying, it was easy to me. But when the last years came, I needed to put more effort on study, I didn't liked it, and also didn't get the results I wanted.

Now I'm getting back to university, and it is really difficult to me to put all the effort I need to study, it's like I don't want to.

This article resonated a lot with me, and helped me understand a posible cause of what happens to me. Also, reading about how brain "exercise" helps intelligence, motivated me to get to study a lot more now :)

[0] I think I really am smart (not that it makes me better than anyone though) but I don't know how much, or how to measure that, if that's really and objectively possible.

While praising children for the right thing is important, I don't think that the emphasis should be on praise.

It is much more important that parents make a conscious effort to see the children, try to gauge their emotions, and reflect that in words.

In the book "Your Competent Child" (I can highly recommend that to all parents), Jesper Juul gives an example. A child manages to climb up the back side of a slide, and then calls "look, ma!". Now many parents have the urge to say "Wow, you did that really well", and thus give a reward for the child's hard work.

But climbing up was fun (even if it was also hard work), and by giving a reward we teach the child to crave the reward, not the fun. Instead, one could just say "Yes, I'm looking", or trying to understand the child better, say "Yes, I'm looking. Did you have fun climbing up? And now maybe you're just a tiny bit scared sliding down?".

By simply observing the children, and making it clear that we do, we give value to children themselves, not their intelligence, and not their effort either. IMHO that's a much higher goal.

If at some point their motivation fails, they still feel they have value.

Once again, for anybody who wants to take children seriously, I highly recommend to read Jesper Juul's books. They were a real eye-opener to me.

> "Yes, I'm looking. Did you have fun climbing up? And now maybe you're just a tiny bit scared sliding down?"

Your point notwithstanding, imagining someone actually saying this made me wince with embarrassment. How idiotically contrived.

Why did it make you wince with embarrassment? From spending time with my nephews and friend's daughters, I know it's reasonable. I probably would have phrased it, "I see! Did you have fun climbing up? Do you want to slide down?" I probably wouldn't use the word "scared" unless I thought they actually looked scared.

I imagined standing next to a proverbial armchair-child-psychologist saying this to their child, and then looking over at them with a disgusted look on my face at the amount of shallow over-understanding it implied.

If it was only a bit funnier, it would be a line for a skit about hippie parents on a sketch comedy show.

Yes, it's a bit contrived, and while it might be embarrassing on hackernews, it's not at all embarrassing when actually dealing with a 1.5yr old.

Nope, still embarrassing there too.

Yeah, wouldn't want to embarrass yourself in front of a toddler.

Lol, the purpose of embarrassment is not to avoid censure by those around you, but rather to avoid doing something shameful or disgraceful (whether alone or in company).

EDIT: So that I have said something in this thread other than short and flippant remarks:

The real problem I have with “And now maybe you're just a tiny bit scared sliding down?” or any other such nonsense, if we put aside the fact that it's so embarrassing I just winced myself in two—the main problem is that it is totally bewildering to the target audience. I know this, because when I was of such an age, I was saddled with caretakers for a time who thought in the same way as this poor fellow here. My four-year-old self is thinking, “Fuck you, I just fuckin climbed up this slide and you can’t stop me, I am fucking fearless—but a little hurt that you didn't think it was as cool as I did.” This is literally my four-year-old interior dialogue. I find it hard to imagine that I'm the only one.

In my (albeit limited and anecdotal experience), the little ones do not respond well to such fawning and whipperdogged pop-psychology-inspired beginner's folly emotional claptrap---it either insults them, confuses them, or dismays them. And it certainly does not instill confidence in the creature that you believe they can slide down successfully—and it is indeed reassurance that they were after, make no mistake.

Context. Context. Of course you don't say it to 4yr old who does that thing 20 times a day. You say it to 1.5yr who did it the first or second time, and actually is hesitant.

Somehow I get the impression that you are deliberately trying to interpret everything in the poorest possible light, without any sense of context. Please stop that.

I respectfully disagree. There is nothing wrong with rewarding the child for his/her accomplishment, quite the contrary. I would also argue that it is especially important to show your love through the praise - verbal or not. If you try to repress that by using weird phrases like the one above I think you are not doing your child a favor.

The children learn from example, not from your words. Do YOU have fun doing your work? Do YOU enjoy mowing the lawn? Do YOU enjoy riding the bicycle? Then your child will too.

Admittedly I haven't read Jull, but I have heard a few quotes from his books before and none of them made sense to me either.

A parent's simple act of being responsive is a form of praise. This will typically include looking and smiling, though there's little point in trying to fake such things if they don't come naturally.

Children who don't have responsive parents will tend to 'misbehave' until the parents become more responsive. I put 'misbehave' in quotes because although the form of the behaviour is bad, children are entitled to have responsive parents, and they know no other means of obtaining them

I think I know what you mean about words: children learn their moral ideas from parental behavior rather than from what their parents explicitly tell them to do.

But note that parental behavior includes words. So the principle is consistent with giving verbal descriptions of what a child is doing as he is doing it, or just after, or asking a question about it if you have one.

(I mean a real question, which is only rarely about feelings. I add this because all too many adult-child interactions are peppered with fake questions like 'Are you a good boy?' etc)

Verbal descriptions are helpful especially when, as we are discussing, something cool has happened, since there the child is operating at the edge of his ability and understanding, which is usually inexplicit in his mind. A verbal understanding helps to consolidate the achievement and also to introduce creative variations

You're right, there's nothing wrong with praise. It just shouldn't be the major reaction that children get from their parents.

> The children learn from example, not from your words. Do YOU have fun doing your work? Do YOU enjoy mowing the lawn? Do YOU enjoy riding the bicycle? Then your child will too.

Correct. And do you value them for just being them, instead of their achievements and their effort? if yes, they will too.

> Admittedly I haven't read Jull, but I have heard a few quotes from his books before and none of them made sense to me either.

They didn't make sense to me either, until I actually read the book. It's too big a shift from "standard" educational approaches to be summarized in a few quotes.

One of my several life principles is that the only real sin one can commit is not utilizing the full potential of the resources one was granted. Squandering a gift or privilege or resource is the only true failure in life, whether it is an inheritance or simply time. This notion is difficult to engender in a world of standardized tests and public education, where, the same bars are set at the same height for all students. If clearing a 5' high bar earns an A, what is the reward for clearing 6'? This implies a homogeneous intelligence that does not exist, and the output is akin to the blandness of mass-produced foods. Yes, honors and advanced placement courses and special education are injected into the curriculum, but do not adequately address the greatly varied minds that pass through. Internet education has the opportunity to 'mass-customize' education and tailor the challenge of learning to individual minds. I see this as greatly promising. There are many efforts from Khan Academy to open lecture series' sponsored by top schools. But in my community, the learning behavior of high school students is primarily aligned with entrance to a top university, a conforming effect (one very high bar for all) that moves in the opposite direction to the point that learning has far more to do with disappointment than achievement. So where do we stand? Can in-person plus Internet education be mass-customized on a public school scale to better effect and if so, what is the path?

  the only real sin [...] the only true failure
Failure is not a sin. There may be plenty of reasons why a person chose (or had to take) a different path.

I should put a little more meat on it. The point is in the daily choices that people make for themselves. If one 'had to take' a particular path, that implies the choice was not theirs to make, and that is perfectly understandable.

In the end, it has to be left to the individual to determine whether they are making the most of what they have, so for me, it is a guiding principle to use in self-reflection, rather than a score card to be judged by.

That term failure is ambiguous to some: suppose "failure" means one try didn't work, "defeat" means gave up, never trying again and causes a loss of confidence.

Also neat: Failure Games


Overall a well written article with some solid points and data . However, to my understanding, the article claims that if we praise our kids for their smartness, we are implicitly teaching them not to value hard work and efforts.

It even goes that far by claiming "Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it."

Human beings are complicated. Talk about kids; it complicates the situation further. I am a father and I believe in praising with the right attitude. That attitude is "Yes you are good but you are still like many others. Keep going and you are doing a great job". I will go as far as to say that if your kids are under performing even though they are smart, it has nothing to do with your praising but more to do with overall values that are being taught to them by the parents. So go ahead, praise away but teach them the right values by example.

I don't think the article necessarily says NOT to praise your children. It just says to praise them for specific things in their own control (e.g., hard work or listening to instructions) rather than praising them for things out of their control (e.g., being smart).

I want to note as someone who was the "victim" of over-praise that I don't think it would've been such a problem if not for the fact that so much of the praise was done without a clear impetus (e.g. a large amount of effort expended on a project). It got to the point that it was basically background noise that made my mindset "well, if my baseline mode is apparently 'smart as hell' when I'm not trying at all, why try?".

It's like you've hiked 1/10 of the way up a mountain and there's someone insistently blocking your view of the peak and saying "oh my god look at how far you've come you are awesome!"

If you know about nonviolent communication (NVC) - they say that most praise are violent speech because it doesn't come without strings attached - but rather are a form of subtle manipulation to make the kid perform as the parents desire.

Instead of saying "You're so smart!" or "You're so hard working!" - which is attaching a label to the kid, they should focus inside an tell how the action of the kid made them feel: "You made me feel very happy because you completed your work."

That doesn't say anything about how the kid is, instead it says how the parent feels, thus, allowing the kid to feel more free and understand why he is being appreciated. With regard to giving praise, I think NVC is quite insightful.

they say that most praise are violent speech

I think any system that twists words so ridiculously to make a point is highly suspect.

It is ridiculous to claim that praising someone can be accurately described as "violent speech". It holds as much hyperbole as saying you were "raped" at the grocery store because Apples were $2 each.

As someone who's received praise on being smart as a child, I don't think it's necessarily all that bad, depending on the mindset the child already has. If they already realize that working hard will lead to them doing better in school, then it probably won't have as debilitating as an effect.

Nor do the study authors propose that "it's necessarily all that bad." It's a population trend. Eg, in the first experiment 90% of those praised for their intelligence chose the easier test while "a majority" of those praised for their effort chose the harder test. This suggests that 10% of the first group weren't "debilitated" by praise.

Similarly, on page 4 "Of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie." Again, it's doesn't have a universal negative effect.

But when adults (not only parents, but other family, even strangers) recognize and praise "smartness" long before the child can understand that hard work is involved? I'd say this is the problem. And it seems to be so for praise of most any attribute: praise a child constantly for their looks and they seem to have similar self-confidence problems later in life as well.

That's true, but they may also be praising "smartness" before the child knows what that is either. However, given how schools work, it's pretty unlikely that someone will realize what it means to be considered smart after they've realized the value of hard work.

I know that feeling. I'm still struggling with it and it has kept me confined to very few things for ages.

wait what... cursive penmanship is a thing? i thought it was just a joke from cartoons.

In what year were you born? I've heard there was a cut-off at some point in the late 90s where they stopped teaching it. Whenever it was, it was after I was in school. ;)

Still taught in montessori schools as a tool for the development of fine motor control. Education in Montessori is literally hands-on for everything, as they feel the hand is the instrument of human intelligence. So for them it's like practicing a musical instrument or learning to draw.

But it appears also that kids who were taught cursive express more complex ideas in their writing later on - http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/what...

Previous to your comment, my experience with Montessori schools was limited to hearing of people sending their kids to them. Now I wish I'd gone to one. :)

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