The Difference Between Praise and Feedback

| March 28, 2014 | 21 Comments
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By Anya Kamenetz

Parenting these days is patrolled by the language police. Sometimes it seems like the worst thing you could ever say to a kid is “Good job!” or the dreaded, “Good girl!”  Widely popularized psychological research warns about the “inverse power of praise” and the importance of “unconditional parenting.” The incorrectly phrased, indiscriminately doled out pat on the back can, we learn, undermine a child’s inner motivation to learn and achieve, promote a “fixed mindset” that will cause her to shrink from taking on any kind of challenge or effort, and maybe even destroy her sense of self worth.

The anxiety is such that parenting blogs circulate actual word-for-word scripts for parents to use in such difficult situations as the sidelines of a swim meet, or after a music recital. There are long lists of forbidden words and phrases, too.

What are these researchers really getting at? Are the particular words we use to talk to our kids so important? And how do we convey positive feelings without negative consequences?

Process Praise

Some of the most prominent psychologists behind all of this talk about talking are Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, whose research the education author Alfie Kohn relies heavily on in his books including Unconditional Parenting. Both Dweck and Deci are theorists of human motivation, but they emphasize very different perspectives on praise.

Dweck’s studies have focused on the effects of “process praise,” which means praising effort or strategy: “You must have worked very hard on this painting!” This is opposed to “person praise,” which labels people with phrases like, “You are really good at painting!” “You must be a genius!”

The idea is that reinforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, the vaunted “growth mindset.” But praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed, which makes kids less willing to take on new challenges that might expose them as less naturally able.

Most of Dweck’s research has focused on process praise given by strange adults interacting with children in a research study environment. But in a recent study, her team coded videotapes of parents praising their one to three-year-old children. They found that the greater use of process praise with these very young children predicted their later desire to take on new challenges, which in turn influenced these children’s math achievement seven years later, in fourth grade.

“Kids are thrilled by the idea that they can grow their brains through their effort and strategy,” Dweck says. “Praising strategy and focus and improvement gives them actionable information and a reason to try hard.”

Praise and Personhood

Simple, right? Not so fast. Writers such as Kohn have condemned all praise, including Dweck’s “process praise,” as little more than “sugarcoated control.”

The idea is that parental praise is manipulative, intrusive, and undermines both children’s intrinsic enjoyment of what they’re doing and their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard.

Kohn cites Deci and Richard Ryan, and their colleagues including Guy Roth and Avi Assor at the University of the Negev in Israel. All of them have found in a series of studies that when parents express any kind of “conditional regard,” it harms young people’s developing autonomy, causing them to feel pressured to achieve, to feel shame if they don’t, and to suppress negative emotions and experiences. Conditional regard includes positive reinforcement, the practice of offering praise in exchange for desired behavior.

“If you tell your kids, ‘You’re a good boy for taking out the trash,’” they may feel that if they don’t take out the trash, they’re not worthy of your love,” says Deci. “You need to express that you love them and approve of them no matter what they do.”

Verbal rewards are a pretty central weapon in the parenting arsenal, especially when it comes to academic achievement. Deci and his colleagues found that offering your warmth and approval in exchange for academic achievement does work, in the sense that it causes young people to be more invested in trying to do well in school. But it’s a devil’s bargain that backfires emotionally in the form of “maladaptive self feelings.”

The controversial recent book The Triple Package, coauthored by “tiger mom” Amy Chua, purported to explain why certain ethnic groups tend to outperform others in education, occupational status and earnings. Two of the three traits the authors describe are a superiority complex accompanied by insecurity—a pretty good description of what researchers say can be the outcome of too much conditional parental positive regard.

Praise vs. Feedback

Parents are not perfectly controlled Siri-like bots but human beings with positive and negative emotions that are going to arise in response to specific actions by children. So is there any way to channel and communicate your sincere feelings to your kids without doing lasting harm? Surprisingly, despite their differing views on praise, Dweck and Deci tend to agree on the right course of action.

When I ask Dweck about the “sugarcoated control” idea, she says, “I basically agree that we overpraise.” Her intention in talking about process praise is to redirect this impulse more constructively. Instead of mindlessly kvelling over every fingerpainting or math test — or even just telling kids to “try hard!” — her recommendation is to get more involved with what a kid is doing. “Appreciate it. Ask questions. If we see that a child is using interesting strategies we can ask about them. Talk to them about their thought processes, how they can learn from mistakes.” Encourage your child to actively seek both positive and negative feedback in order to grow and improve.

Deci says something similar. In addition to assuring children of your continuous love and regard, “You want to understand what your child is thinking and feeling, to be respectful toward them. Asking questions is a far better idea than giving praise”—or criticism for that matter.  The idea is to support the development of a child’s autonomy by taking his perspective.

If you’re on the sidelines at a soccer game, it’s easy to pull out some pre-scripted phrase like “I love to watch you play!” or “You’re a natural!” It’s harder to watch your kid so you can tell her, “When you made that pass in the second quarter, I could see that you’ve been practicing your footwork a lot,” or to take the time to ask, “What was your favorite part of the game?” and really listen to the answer.

Providing helpful, detailed, encouraging feedback and appreciation requires paying attention to what kids are doing, and listening to what they are saying. This takes time and energy. Dweck says what she sees all too often are time-pressured parents who reach for a quick sugar fix instead. “We are a praise-addicted culture. I don’t think parents are going to stop praising.”

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  • Andrew

    Kohn may be right about No Praise…if all we are is learning animals. But we’re also relational beings and praise, and the attendant idea that you’ve been pleasing to someone, are part of our make up. Hard to imagine a relationship that would be worth having when both parties are relying on “their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard,” and not responding to the effect they’re having on the other person.

    http://speakingofeducation.blogspot.com/

  • fanas

    Yip. Now I can understand why 20% of the population are on happy pills. They have nobody praising them for any good they do or have in them. Crazy world we live in nowadays.

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  • James

    Oh, so many angles to comment on. Adults can correct the problem in many ways: learn to praise themselves, and learn to focus in on the purpose. For children, I’d think focussing on questions would be the key. How do you think you did? How would you like to do that next time? How have you improved? What did you do? What else can you do? All that.

  • Pt Taken

    Humans respond to praise; this is why the complement is such an integral part of our interactions across all cultures. At the end of the day though, we are all here to make life bearable for each other and an occasional pat on the back can make a huge difference, sometimes between life and death. That said, we tend to paint with an overlarge brush: low-fat diet for everyone, college for everyone, and now praise for everything and everyone. Problem is we all all possessed of wildly varying metabolisms, aptitudes and psychological needs. The same praise that would reassure one child may very well deflate the ambitions of another. But our tendency, in the case of the current issue, shower with deluges of praise rather than sprinkle judiciously seems to have created this current generation of youth who won’t get out of bed for anything less than a trust fund. Moderation in praise along with everything else would seem to be the order of the day.

  • Jane

    I felt sad reading the conclusion – Do people really need to be told to be involved with and respectful toward their own children?? I teach K – 3 at the moment, and I make a great effort to be involved with all of my students’ work, to be specific, supportive, encouraging, and, when appropriate, reproachful or critical. I rarely offer feedback without first engaging a student in an exchange about their progress. It’s often instructive for me to hear students’ thoughts, ideas, feelings, what they find challenging, what they enjoy, and why.

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  • http://www.excite.com/education/ Candice Smith

    Praise is a direct correlation to performance but it can only work if the benchmarks are reasonable and parents are truly able to ‘measure’ the performance properly. Kohn has pinched the perfect points here that most parents don’t even realize. You’d be surprised to know how parents are so blank on information about their kids. This requires patience and understanding to connect which sadly turns out to be a task too tough for some parents and teachers.

    How the children thinks? what sparks their interest? why do they react to something the way they did? These are questions parents are supposed to observe keenly so that they can find out the bases on which they should praise their children rightfully. Otherwise parents are unintentionally just killing in children the motive to succeed, which will hit them back later in school or college.

  • gericar

    I think this kind of article is hilarious…. Maybe everyone shouldn’t have kids…. I think each couple willing to invest a quarter of a million dollars/kid and the rest of their lives either parenting or being blamed for every word that comes out of their mouths should have a support group of two or three other couples who don’t have kids and are willing to make sure the laundry is done, the house is relatively clean, bills are paid and the grass gets mowed, food gets bought, kids get driven to school and soccer and ballet and band and birthday parties and pajama parties and tutoring and cooking classes not to mention parent’s own full time jobs….. then the people with kids could concentrate on just exactly what to say to little Sophia in every possible situation. Otherwise, kids are just going to have to take pot-luck and a little benign neglect like the rest of the human race.

    • henry ford

      yes. absolutely. parents should just pass on the unthinking crap that they got from their parents with absolutely no effort to incorporate behavioral science into their process … because they are too busy. good point!

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  • rcole

    I feel like the “no praise” methods of child raising is just going to create a generation full of serial killers. ” my mom/dad didn’t tell me enough that I was good at anything. I never got the love/Attention I needed as a child, so I’m going to get it here” *stab stab Stab* bad idea folks.

  • Lesley

    OMG I am a mother of five and am now bringing grandkids up. All my kids have different abilities but all know one thing; they are always loved though not always liked. I have always asked how their day has gone, always given praise when due and yes my kids have worked for that praise. Failure at anything had always been seen as a lesson to be learned from and my kids believe they can achieve anything they work at. Eldest 29 youngest 19 grandchild 2x2yrs. Eldest girl got highest grade in maths and has a degree in Forensic biology with psychology, second girl in last year of degree in horse management and breeding, youngest son just finished diploma in fishery management and sports fishing. One lad a full time single dad and the other working as a welder. Hmmmm where did I go wrong???? Oh yeah I parented each child according to their needs :)