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Sinead Moriarty: Why praising children is not always smart - and can breed dishonesty


Are we really doing our children any favours by over-praising them? Stock image

Are we really doing our children any favours by over-praising them? Stock image

Are we really doing our children any favours by over-praising them? Stock image

A new study has found that children praised by their parents for being smart are more likely to cheat in tests.

Children these days get a standing ovation for putting on their own socks. They get whoops and cheers when they bring home a page covered in scribbles from art class.

When they lip synch to ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ at the Christmas play, it is recorded and sent to relatives far and wide. Smiley faces, thumbs up and ‘wow’ are the expected responses.

But are we really doing our children any favours by over-praising them? What happens when they go to ‘big school’, spell ‘cat’ correctly and the teacher doesn’t start backflipping around the class with glee?

Will they understand that they are not the genius they thought they were? Will they be able to cope with being ‘average’ and ‘normal’. Will they be able to get through the day without a ticker-tape parade for every correct answer?

Experts are telling us to praise children for their efforts not for their abilities. Kids who are praised for their efforts have a greater chance at success because they are more motivated.

The new study explains that when children are praised for being smart, not only are they quicker to give up in the face of obstacles, they are also more likely to be dishonest and cheat.

Children as young as three appear to behave differently when told “You are so smart” instead of  “You did very well this time”.

The study, published in ‘Psychological Science’, is co-authored by Gail Heyman, development psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto, and Lulu Chen and Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University in China.

Prof Heyman understands that it’s perfectly natural to tell children how smart they are, but suggests we try a different approach.

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“What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well,” she said.

The problem is that when children are praised for being smart or learn that they have a reputation for being smart, they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to the expectations of parents, teachers and even peers. 

Whereas, if you praise a child’s specific behaviour, it does not imply that the child is expected to consistently perform well and therefore does not have similar negative effects as ability praise.

The results of the study came from research carried out on 300 children in eastern China. Half of the children were aged three, the other half were aged five.

The children were asked to play a guessing game using number cards. The children were either praised for their intelligence or for their performance. One group received no praise at all.

The researcher asked the children who had been praised to promise not to cheat and then left the room for 60 seconds, right in the middle of the game.

The children’s behaviour while the researcher was out of the room was recorded by a hidden camera. The camera captured the children getting out of their seats or leaning over to take a peak at the answers that had been left on a desk.

The results showed that both the three and five year olds who’d been praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly than the ones praised for how well they did or those who got no praise at all.

The results were the same for boys and girls.

Why is it that giving children praise for being smart promotes dishonesty?

“Praise is more complex than it seems,” said Prof Lee.

“Praising a child’s ability implies that the specific behaviour that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one’s ability, such as smartness.

“This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behaviours or praising effort.”

We all want to encourage children and make them feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behaviour. By doing this, the praise will have the intended positive outcomes.

The study shows there’s a moral dimension to different kinds of praise that affects children as young as three.

It’s important for parents and teachers to take this on board. Less of the, ‘Wow you’re a mini Picasso’ and more of the, ‘Well done that actually does look like a dog’.

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