”The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” – Norman Vincent Peale

In Part 1 about motivation, we learned how intrinsic motivation, the built-in desire to learn and to grow, is far more powerful than extrinsic motivation at sustaining good habits. One of the hotly debated topics in the field concerns the use of praise. Does praise help motivate kids to work harder or does it do just the opposite?

Although research about the perils of too much praise on children’s learning is not new, it is so important that it bears repeating. Here’s the punchline: praise may do more harm than good.

One of the leaders of this inquiry is psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University. Her original article entitled “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance,” was published with Claudia Mueller from Columbia University in 1998, and it created quite a stir since the prevailing belief at the time was that praise helped increase motivation.

Contrary to the notion that praise is always a motivator, the authors found that praise is instead a double-edged sword. Sometimes praise can actually decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation. Dweck’s research underscored an important tip for parents, namely, that praise for effort–not success– is what matters. Since then, Dweck and others have been looking at how parents and educators can help children develop the type of mindset, or set of beliefs, that leads to increased internal motivation.

Mindset is a simple idea conceived by Carol Dweck through decades of research on achievement and success. Those with a fixed mindset believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. They believe that talent alone, without effort, creates success—and therefore spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of working harder to become accomplished.

In contrast, those with a growth mindset believe their most basic abilities can be developed and improved through dedication and hard work. Innate gifts are just the starting point. This second view creates a love of learning and the resilience needed for great accomplishment. Check out the video on mindsets, a great dialogue between a parent and a psychologist describing Dweck’s concepts.

If you’re like most parents, you probably tell your kids how smart they are with the worthy goal of boosting your child’s self-esteem and performance. Unfortunately, we now know that this is not the best way to build motivation or achievement in the long run. Dweck’s original research found that many of the kids who had been labeled smart performed far worse than those who were praised for their hard work, regardless of their results on a particular task.

Another important finding was that ninety percent of the kids praised for their effort were eager to go on to a more challenging task. This research has now been repeated with hundreds of kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds with the same results. Kids who receive the wrong kind of praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge. Being told how smart you are builds a fixed mindset when a growth mindset is what builds the motivation to work hard to get better, no matter what the task.

I am reminded of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson who realized, “When I was praised I lost my time, for instantly I turned around to look at the work I had thought slightly of, and that day I made nothing new.” Praise can inadvertently take our attention away from our creative process, our own sense of how hard we are trying, and how much we value what we have accomplished.

Next time you are inclined to tell your child what a great drawing he or she has done, try something new. Point out how much time you’ve noticed she’s put into it, and ask, “What do you think of it? How might you make it even better?”

Happy mom and child photo available from Shutterstock.