Be careful what you say to toddlers

Happy toddlerLaboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called “incremental mindset” – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn.

Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later, Dr Christian Jarrett writes for the BPS.

The researchers observed and recorded 53 individual parents interacting with their children in the home for 90 minutes, whether playing, having a meal or whatever. They did this when the children were aged 14, 26 and 38 months. Five years later, the researchers caught up with the kids and asked them questions about their attitudes and mindset towards ability, challenges and moral goodness.

The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty.

This association held even after the researchers controlled for a raft of other variables such as the families’ socioeconomic status, the parents’ own mindset towards ability, and total amount of parental praise.

“We present the first results indicating that the process praise children hear naturalistically bears a relation to their motivational frameworks that parallels the relation between process praise and motivational frameworks found experimentally,” the researchers said.

Unlike parents’ early use of process praise, there was no link between parents’ early tendency to praise children for their traits (known as person praise, as in “you’re so smart”) and children’s later ability mindset. This could be because the researchers actually observed very little person praise – it accounted for less than 10 per cent of praise-related utterances.

Although Gunderson and her colleagues acknowledged the limitations of their study – including the fact that it was observational and does not prove a causal link between parents’ praise style and the children’s later mindset – they said the results had important real-life implications. “In particular,” they said, “praise that emphasises children’s effort, actions, and strategies may not only predict but also impact and shape the development of children’s motivational frameworks in the cognitive and social domains.”

There were some other intriguing details. Parents who themselves held an incremental mindset towards ability actually tended to use more person praise with their children – perhaps, the researchers surmised, because they believed in the need to boost their children’s self-esteem as a way to increase their ability.

Also, it was noteworthy that lab research in this area has tended to use praise that is explicitly process focused, as in “you must have tried hard.” However, the researchers didn’t uncover a single use of that phrase, and all forms of explicit process praise were hard to come by. This goes to show just how important it is to conduct observational research in real-life settings, to make sure that lab research is realistic.

Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science. This study raises the possibility that this could be due in part to the way they are praised at an early age.