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Why too much praise may harm our kids

WE'RE all guilty of it. "Wow! That picture is brilliant! You're so clever! You're such a great speller! You're so good at maths!"

Self-esteem is everything these days, so we all fall over ourselves trying to convince our kids that they can do no wrong. Success, we understand, will follow as night follows day.

But new research shows that the wrong kind of praise will actually set your child back. It can demoralise them and give them a fear of failure. Nurture Shock by science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggests that when it comes to rearing children, much of the accepted wisdom is backfiring.

"We tell kids 'you're so smart' or 'you're so clever' after a single test," says Merryman, discussing the inverse power of praise. "But what happens tomorrow when they don't get a perfect mark? 'I'm sorry, I guess you're not so clever after all'. We think that building self-esteem leads to more achievement, but what it actually does is it gets kids so attached to these labels that they don't want to do anything that would jeopardise them."

Praising Irish kids was a complete no-no until recently, says Dublin-based counsellor and family therapist Owen Connelly. "The fear was that if we did encourage them or praise them then that would raise them above the parapet, and they would then be subject to attack or being put down. You might say something nice about your kid to a neighbour but you'd never say it in front of him."

He believes, however, that blindly praising your children, no matter what they do, is equally damaging. "The child knows you're lying when they go out to kick football and they've two left feet and you insist that they are a fantastic player. If this happens, then their trust in you will start to diminish."

What kids need, Connolly says, is not so much praise as a combination of comfort and encouragement.

Nurture Shock details new research -- carried out over the past decade -- on the effect of praise on students in the New York public school system. Columbia University psychologist Carol Dweck sent four female researchers into fifth grade classrooms, where children are between 10 and 11 years old.

In the first stage, individual kids were taken from class and given an easy series of puzzles to do. At the end of the test, the researcher would tell the child their score and then give them just a single line of praise. But here's the key difference. Half of these randomly selected groups were praised for their intelligence: "You must be really clever." And half were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."

In the next phase, all of the kids were offered a choice between an easy test and a more difficult test. They were told that while the latter might be more difficult, they'd learn a lot from it. Almost 90pc of those who were praised for effort after the first test chose the hard test, while a majority of those who were praised for their intelligence picked the easy one.

The reason for the cop-out, Merryman explains, is that they just couldn't risk failure. The child praised for his intelligence understands that his success is all down to something that he's born with. He's afraid to apply himself to anything difficult in case he fails, and it turns out that he's not so smart after all.

"And once the kid fails, the kid who had been praised for smarts couldn't come back because he felt that he had lost that innate ability that was proof of his success," says Merryman. "Whereas the kids who had been told that you worked hard, said to themselves, 'I wanna take the test even if I do badly because I get to work hard more'. They're still failing but they're enjoying the experience because it's about learning."

In the next stage, the kids weren't given any choice. All of them were given tests that were two years ahead of their grade level. Naturally enough, everyone failed. But again, the kids who'd been praised for their effort in the first test reacted very differently to those who'd been praised for their intelligence. The work-hard kids got stuck into each of the puzzles, while those that had been praised for their smarts were miserable. Here was proof that the key to their success -- their intelligence -- wasn't there.

The final round of tests was probably the most telling. These ones were as easy as the first. The kids who'd been praised for effort increased their scores by 30pc while those who had been told they succeeded because they were smart did about 20pc worse.

Merryman, who runs a volunteer programme helping underprivileged kids with their homework, says that as a result of that research, she has completely changed her approach.

"I used to say things like, 'you're so smart'. Now I say, if you worked hard, and only if you worked hard, 'Wow, you really worked hard on that'.

It's not about how smart they are, it's about what they're doing . . . Praise isn't encouragement and it isn't manipulation. It is simply recognition of actual achievement."