Study: Praise Children For What They Do, Not Who They Are

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Toddlers develop a greater preparedness for future challenges when their parents celebrate their efforts instead of their innate qualities.

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Lars Plougmann/Flickr

To the tired ears of third party listeners, all praise that comes from the mouth of proud parents, be it "Good job!" or "Good girl!", sounds more or less the same. Children spend the first three years of their lives trying, failing at, and ultimately accomplishing all sorts of basic tasks, while their parents act as their extremely enthusiastic cheerleaders. 

On average, according to researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago, three percent of the things parents say to their young children are those high-voiced, ecstatic phrases like, "You're a big boy," "You're so smart," and "I like the way you covered your mouth."

But, the researchers point out, when parents say "good job," they're focusing on the child's actions, while saying "good boy" or "good girl" puts the praise on the individual. It's a subtle difference, but apparently toddlers can tell the difference.

In a long term study, to be published in the journal Child Development they videotaped diverse group of over 50 toddlers interacting with their parents at the ages of one, two, and three.

Five years later, the children who were praised more for what they did than who they were ended up being more equipped to take on challenges. This was measured as a composite of their responses to different hypotheticals: Overall, they were more likely to believe in the ability of individuals to learn and become more intelligent, and in people's ability to grow and evolve in general. They were also able to come up with more strategies for dealing with setbacks, and indicated that they welcomed challenges over simple tasks.

The researchers didn't find that focusing on individual characteristics stunted the children in any way, so there's nothing wrong with a kid believing she's the smartest, prettiest, best little girl in the whole wide world (right?).

Except they did find that while girls were being told they're the smartest, biggest, best, whatever, boys were being praised for what a good job they were doing. Even though parents praised both genders equally, boys were praised for their efforts 24.4 percent of the time; girls, only 10.3 percent. Boys, then, were being primed from early childhood to do something with their brains and skills and ability to remember to cover their mouths when they sneezed. And while girls, too, were told how smart and clever they were, they were more likely to grow up believing that they couldn't build upon or develop those traits.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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