Should you stop praising your child?

When children transition into middle school or high school, they often struggle with the more demanding school environment. If they’d done well in elementary school and grades begin to soar it starts to affect their self-esteem. It especially affects kids who thought their earlier success was due to their inborn smarts and abilities. They begin to believe that they might have been dumb all along.

It’s getting harder to recover grades because it involves applying more effort. To the kids, more effort is just further proof of their failure. In interviews, many confess they would “seriously consider cheating.”

Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures. Parents often continue to praise the intelligence and insists the kid will do better next time.

Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible; the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.

What can mice in mazes tell us about our kids?

Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

What should I do? Praise your kids less often?

No, praise them differently! Recognize the effort, hard work and process. Let’s say every night your child ( 12-year-old boy) has math homework and is supposed to read a book aloud. Each takes about fifteen minutes if he concentrates, but he’s easily distracted. You should praise him for concentrating without asking to take a break. If he listens to instructions carefully, praise him for that. After soccer games, praise him for looking to pass, rather than just saying, “You played great.” And if he worked hard to get to the ball, raise the effort he applied.

The universal “You’re great — I’m proud of you” is a way parents express unconditional love, and that’s fantastic. Just stay away from saying: “You are smart (genius, prodigy, it’s so easy for you, etc.) By not telling your kid he is smart means you leave it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. You are letting him know his intelligence is not fixed and can be improved with effort and hard work. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem — it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.