My 6 year old is smart. Not brilliant, not a genius, but quick, bright, perceptive, sensitive, and intelligent. Her information retention is impressive, and her verbal skills often have people thinking that she’s a year or two older than she is. And I never, ever use the word smart in front of her if I can help it.
Everyone tells my daughter how smart she is. They think I’m incredibly bizarre when I tell them I’m using the inverse power of praise by not telling her. They say, “You’re so smart.” I respond, “Yes, she worked very hard on learning to read that story,” or, “I know, we’re so pleased that she has been practicing all the words to her favorite song.”
I first read about this approach in Po Bronson’s NurtureShock essay, “The inverse power of praise“, and I’ve talked about it a lot since then with my parenting friends. The idea is that by complimenting something that your child perceives as inherent (smartness) instead of something they can control (effort) you are setting him or her up to believe that if he or she can’t just DO something, he or she cannot LEARN to do it. Bronson argues that in the great self-esteem push of the 1980s many of us fell victim to this kind of thinking. The science at the time believed that praising kids would give them great self-esteem. Likewise, many of us were raised being told we were smart, creative, and generally awesome at everything. And then, many of us struggled to understand how to study in school because we lacked the ability to organize ourselves and complete long term projects. We often felt that if we weren’t immediately good at something there was no point in trying – we wouldn’t ever be good.
This is not what I want my daughter to learn, so I’ve turned to the inverse power of praise.
How the inverse power of praise works
My daughter is smart, sure. But I compliment how hard she works, when she solves problems on her own, or when she doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. I compliment things under her control, praise ways that she influences and changes her world for the better. I want her to learn that she is powerful. I want her to know that it is not something inherent or predetermined that creates her limitations, but her vision, and her effort.
- Identify specific behavior that is earned – Parents must learn to identify how a child got to a successful conclusion, then, tell that child what it is that helped him or her to succeed. For example: “Jimmy, I know you gave it a lot of effort and energy to clean your room. I really appreciate that!”
- Identify results – Parents must first identify the difference between earned rewards and rewards that come to the child without effort and energy expended. But don’t dwell on the results, because the point here is that parents need to recognize the effort and the behavior that has delivered the results. The inverse power of praise means that even if the painting was not that great, the fact that the child went through the discipline and effort to complete it is what’s important. For example: “I think your painting impressed grandma. What other great pictures can we draw for our friends?”
- Offer gratitude and encouragement – Parents should remember that a sincere “thank you” can be enough, and should be enough for children to feel praised and satisfied. There’s nothing in the world a child seeks more than a parent’s affirmation. For example: “Jimmy, I want to let you know how much daddy and I appreciate your emptying the dishwater earlier today. That meant a lot to us. Thank you!”
- Choose your praise with discrimination – Parents need to remember that everything children do is not to be rewarded. For instance, after a routine, such as emptying the dishwasher, has been established, then parents can get by with a simple “Thanks”. An overabundance of praise goes against the inverse power of praise, so use praise sparingly.
- Spread your praise to other children – When a parent gives praise to another child for good action while his or her own child watches provides the opportunity for that child to know that rewards are not reserved inside the family. The inverse power of praise demonstrates how discriminating praise can be doled out. For example: “Thank you for showing my son Jimmy how to throw away the broken pieces from our ceramics project. We appreciate the help in our household.”
Giving praise helps children feel appreciated and respected, but only praise that is sincere and specific. Most parents tend to spread praise about like they’re blessings to be bestowed freely upon our children. In fact, we need to ensure that our praise is given only occasionally and with maximum effect.
Excessive praise kills motivation in a child because self-esteem becomes misunderstood when it is not cultivated and nurtured properly. Nowhere is this point better illustrated than in the Greek myth of Narcissus, where someone who was so very sure of himself he sat pondering the glories of his own reflection in a lake until his vanity overwhelmed him and he died. Here’s a perfect example of the inverse power of praise.