Is It Better to Praise for Achievement or Personal Attributes?

My blogroll is awash in posts that suggest children should be praised for their achievements rather than for their way of being. (Here is one of them, but I can easily find about 30 more). Simply put, instead of saying “you are so beautiful!” or “you are very intelligent!”, adults should tell children things like “You tried really hard!” and “You obviously put a lot of work in it!”

To me, the latter form of “praise” sounds like a passive-aggressive form of condescension. If you don’t see what I mean, just imagine yourself, as you are today, hearing both kinds of praise from the most significant people in your life. What would you prefer to hear from your romantic partner, “You look beautiful!” of “I can see how hard you work to look good”?

If you remember that children are just as human as you are and their only difference is that they are a lot more dependent than adults, you can imagine what the “praise for achievement” does to their feelings of self-worth and security in the world. As an adult, you can always just dump the loser who condescends to you with “Good job!” instead of praising you for what you are and who expects you to jump out of your skin to deserve her or his regard. A child has nowhere to go.

I have an opportunity to see the results of both systems of upbringing on a daily basis. N.* and I are products of these competing approaches. As I was growing up, the great-grandparents and grand-parents who raised me kept telling me how beautiful, intelligent, and phenomenal I was. They would sit around me with their mouths gaping open and eyes clouded with tears of delight (seriously, I’m not exaggerating) and repeat, “Oh, isn’t she beautiful? She is the most beautiful little girl in the world. And have you noticed how smart she is? Smart, pshaw! She is so much more than smart! The kid is a genius!”

As a result, I grew up with a feeling – a very basic, crucial, life-forming feeling – that the world is kind and welcoming towards me, that everything will turn out right, all problems can be solved, and everybody likes me**. And isn’t this the most important thing?

N., on the other hand, was always praised only for achievement. Good grades, good behavior, success at athletics. As a little boy, he once grew so desperate to hear a single word of unconditional approval and love that he asked his mother, “Mommy, am I good-looking?” The mother didn’t respond, so N. decided – in a way that cannot be shaken by any evidence to the contrary 30 years since – that he is ugly. I mean, if even your own mother can’t force herself to say you look good, then the only conclusion a child can draw is that he must be really disfigured.

As a result, he grew up with a feeling – a very basic, crucial, life-forming feeling – that the world is treacherous and dangerous, that nothing will ever turn out right, that misfortune can befall him at any turn, and that nobody likes him. Does this sound like a very happy worldview?

I think that people should ask themselves, “Do I want to raise a convenient, easy-to-manage child? Or a happy one?” If you prefer ease of management, then feel free to manipulate with achievement praise, making the kid think s/he has to keep buying love and regard. If your goal is the child’s happiness, then show the kid that s/he is loved just as s/he is. It is important not to sacrifice the long-term goal of bringing up a happy adult to the short-term goal of having the kid complete some insignificant third-grade project that will be forgotten in fifteen minutes.

* As usual, I never publish any stories about N. without his express permission.

** This happy world-view got somewhat messed up when I lived in New Haven but I have now almost completely recovered it.

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27 comments on “Is It Better to Praise for Achievement or Personal Attributes?

  1. The complimenting kids for what they are thing can also backfire and result in someone extremely uncomfortable with challenging him or herself, because failure in something doesn’t just mean failure, it means they’re not the awesome person everyone else thinks they are. If there’s an easily identifiable by someone with more psychological knowledge than me factor that makes the difference between the attitude you describe and the attitude I describe, I’d love to hear what it is.

    • “The complimenting kids for what they are thing can also backfire and result in someone extremely uncomfortable with challenging him or herself, because failure in something doesn’t just mean failure, it means they’re not the awesome person everyone else thinks they are.”

      – This is a result of insincere, fake praise. A child who is sincerely admired by the parents will have a high self-esteem and will never worry about what other people think of him or her.

      • Heh, so I guess it’s time to ‘fess up and admit I am the kid in my post. I disagree with the fake and insincere praise, though. While my folk didn’t quite get teary-eyed, the rest of the admiration behaviour was very similar to what you mentioned, and I am sure they also mean it. Indeed, I don’t worry about what others think of me. I worry about not *being* the person these people who admire me think I am. If someone thinks me a stupid, ugly bore, I don’t give them a second thought. If I’m alone in my room and trying something I haven’t tried before, my stress levels will go through the roof because if I can’t do it, it must mean that I suck.

        • ” If I’m alone in my room and trying something I haven’t tried before, my stress levels will go through the roof because if I can’t do it, it must mean that I suck.”

          – Only you can know whose voice keeps telling you all this when you are alone.

  2. Note to self — Go home and tell your children how beautiful and smart they are. I tend to praise their deeds, although I do tell them that I love them every day.

    My sister and I were always compared when we were kids. She was the pretty one and I was the smart one. Guess how much that made us resent each other? I always felt like I was ugly and disgusting. She always felt like a stupid bimbo. It’s interesting to see how that played out in our lives. She bounced around from bad relationship to bad relationship and never finished a bachelor’s degree. I have a PhD and have had far fewer relationships, but still feel like after what I’ve accomplished that I’m not good enough since I’m not “pretty” enough.

    Sorry to self-focus. This just struck a chord!

    • “My sister and I were always compared when we were kids. She was the pretty one and I was the smart one. Guess how much that made us resent each other? ”

      – This is a strategy many parents use, and it is such a mistake! Ay yay yay.

      “Sorry to self-focus. This just struck a chord!”

      – No, I really appreciate it when people share their own experience.

    • Aw, that sucks for you and your sister!

      (I think my parents must’ve tried very hard never to compare us? My sister, the youngest, still felt a lot of pressure to achieve in school and I still felt stupid sometimes because I was special ed and didn’t take all the same honors classes my brother and sister did, but I don’t remember ever hearing anything like “You should be more like your sister/brother” or “Why don’t you study harder like [sister/brother] does?” out of my parents’ mouths. The primary sense I got was that we were *all* awesome.)

  3. It sounds like you’re presenting only two ways of complimenting here. I can tell you that as a child I was constantly told how pretty I was, and that it made me really uncomfortable. I wanted to be praised for my mind. (Eventually I was once people got over my “pretty blue eyes and long lashes” — ugh — and actually talked to me like I was a person.)

    The compliments towards work that you show don’t sound like compliments to me. There’s a difference between “you tried real hard!” and “great job!” One is condescending and pitying, and basically is the “nice” way of saying “what is that crap you just brought to me?” The other one actually means the person saying it was impressed by what you did. It’s one thing to have people only praise kids when they do assignments — that can make one have a warped, only-work-makes-me-worthy, viewpoint. But if you do something it’s natural you’d want feedback on it, and to know whether you did well or not, and to get praise if you did.

    Compliments and praise are something people can’t seem to handle. Obviously everyone has different needs. I’d say cool it slightly on the personal attributes stuff, but don’t completely ignore them so your kid thinks they’re an ugly troll who always has to prove themselves. Be honest when you think your kid borked something: don’t say “you tried!” in that chirpy, fake tone adults use: be honest (without being brutal) about the mistakes that were made. It can be done. Something like: “Well, I see what you were trying to do, but it didn’t quite work. Do you want me to help you figure out what to do next time?” That’s how it was done with me anyway. No one slapped me down and called me a dummy, but no one gave me fake, unhelpful praise either. Oh, and yes, calling your kid wonderful and smart is usually a good thing — as long as you don’t do it when your kid does something that is neither smart nor wonderful. (That’s when you pull out my parents trick: “You’re smarter than that!”)

    • “Be honest when you think your kid borked something: don’t say “you tried!” in that chirpy, fake tone adults use”

      – Oh, I agree completely! I see the products of this system of upbringing every time when my students throw a tantrum of the “Yes, I can see my essays has 189 mistakes on 4 pages of text but I TRIED REALLY HARD!” This is just sad.

      ” It’s one thing to have people only praise kids when they do assignments — that can make one have a warped, only-work-makes-me-worthy, viewpoint. But if you do something it’s natural you’d want feedback on it, and to know whether you did well or not, and to get praise if you did.”

      – Of course! I think that praising actual achievement – when it is a real achievement – is a good thing. But getting a good grade, tying your shoe-laces, or doing the dishes is not even an achievement. It is a normal thing to do that does not require an applauding audience.

      • Oh gosh yes, I never got huge applause for my good grades, just a “that’s good.” I was expected (because I was intelligent) to take care of my own grades. And once you’re old enough to reach the sink without a step-stool you shouldn’t be complimented for “being mummy’s helper” any more, just do your chores.

  4. Some people work real hard at trying to look good(pretty or handsome). Nothing wrong with telling someone they look good. :)

  5. This is really interesting! I’ve heard of the “don’t praise attributes or else your kids will be too afraid of failure to challenge themselves” thing before, but didn’t really buy it as the whole story. Both my husband and I were praised for attributes, mostly for being smart. When I struggle and/or fail at something, I may whine over a drink, but I don’t take it personally and try to do better next time. When my husband struggles and/or fails at something, he berates himself for being “stupid” and “bad” at that skill and then will be terribly depressed for a few days. And I know his parents well enough to know they were sincere when calling him smart… so I am trying to figure out where the difference comes from.

    My new theory based on the above discussion: maybe he got praised too much for doing the easy things (well, easy things for him) like getting good grades. This resulted in him getting too used to positive feedback, so when he moved into really competitive areas, a lack of positive feedback (let alone the outright failures) makes it really hard to keep his self-worth high. Any thoughts, Clarissa?

    • “My new theory based on the above discussion: maybe he got praised too much for doing the easy things (well, easy things for him) like getting good grades. This resulted in him getting too used to positive feedback, so when he moved into really competitive areas, a lack of positive feedback (let alone the outright failures) makes it really hard to keep his self-worth high.”

      – I think this theory makes a lot of sense. When a 2-year-old ties her laces for the first time, praise makes sense. But if you keep praising her for this activity five years later, this sets the bar of expectations really low.

      My father always had very high expectations of me in terms of academic achievement. “What do you mean, you got 96% on an assignment?” he would ask in a terrible whisper. “Where on earth did the 4% go??” But this never messed with my sense of self-worth because it was too securely established by that time. I actually liked it. And I still do.

    • Your husband’s behaviour is precisely the thing I was talking about earlier in the thread. The praises for my smartness also tended to be triggered by me effortlessly doing stuff and I reacted to that by spending my time on the stuff I could have the greatest success in with the minimum of effort. So while I did get praised for my smartness, what I was actually praised for was doing things without effort, which explains why I freak out when something requires effort.

      • “So while I did get praised for my smartness, what I was actually praised for was doing things without effort, which explains why I freak out when something requires effort.”

        – Makes sense. As I said, children always know what it is in them that really pleases the adults.

  6. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. First, insincere praise is always a bad idea. You may think kids are too stupid to know when you are being insincere, but they figure it out. If you do it too much, kids stop taking you and any praise from you seriously.

    Second, it is better to praise both achievements and qualities, but praise is often not sufficient to build confidence. My parents praised me a lot for being smart. But when I wouldn’t do well in a class, my mother would sit down with me, and we would go over what went wrong. I remember a time when I got a bad grade in a math midterm, and we decided after much analysis that I didn’t quite grasp the concepts in a certain chapter. My task was to focus extra on that chapter for the rest of the year, and sure enough, I did very well in the final. This is the kind of event that needs to happen to children so that they develop confidence in their own abilities.

    • I don’t believe that there can possibly be too much love, acceptance, praise from parents to children. I also don;t think there is such a thing as ‘self-esteem that is too high”, as some people are suggesting. There is this “pedagogue” who publishes one book after another who says he NEVER tells his small daughters they look good because he doesn’t want them to grow up too concentrated on their appearance. The idiot refuses to see that when they grow up, they will fall hard for teh first passing loser who gives them a compliment, especially if the loser is older.

      Your mother sounds like a great person, and this comment is not directed at her in any way, of course.

      • I agree with you, and wasn’t trying to suggest that praise is not a good thing. My point was that only praise is not sufficient in building confidence in kids.

  7. One of the most surprising things I learned as a mother is how quickly kids catch on to fake praise. My 3-year old daughter had a dancing and signing show at preschool, and it was a bit of a mess. Kids ended up forgetting the words, crying and running all over the place. My daughter was inconsolable after, despite how much we tried to cheer her up. Her adoring dad kept telling her that she did an amazing job and he was really proud of her, but she wouldn’t stop crying. As I finally started to catch on to the problem, I asked her if she was upset because the show didn’t go very well. She nodded and I told her that yes, it was a mess, but that I was sure we could practice together and see if she could do better next time. She let out a sigh of relief and calmed down. I have to admit that I was pretty surprised, even though it seems so obvious in retrospect. The fake encouragement was frustrating her more than anything.

  8. I think my experience was mostly like yours — I got a lot of praise, more from teachers and other adults than from my parents, for being so smart. (Also for being such a good talker — I was known to have autism from a very early age, and was going to all sorts of camps and special classes for autistic children, and the adults there were blown away by my verbosity.) My parents would do this, too, but maybe not as much because they expected a lot out of us all, academically. I really liked to write and to draw, too, and my parents and teachers were always telling me I was really good at those things.

    (When I got older I started to like sports, and to do after-school weight training and conditioning. Once I tried competitive lifting, but I wasn’t ready for it. I was never validated for being a good athlete like I was for being a good student, because athletics weren’t important to my family. But I like them, so I kept at it. It was enough for me that I could see I was getting stronger, and I did get validation from peers and coaches.)

    I was never told I was beautiful, in so many words, but I was always told I photographed well. Which I took to mean “You are beautiful, especially when you smile.”

  9. My father was very much into the punishing success model — and he had gender issues. Whenever I had a modicum of public success, he would bemoan that a female like me could get something from the system, whereas he wasn’t rewarded for what he was worth.

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