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Parents are often quick to praise their children, but research has shown that the wrong kind of pep talk can have unintended consequences.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that giving children the wrong kind of praise can make them dishonest.
In particular, the Chinese and American research team led by the University of Toronto, wanted to find out whether praising children encouraged them to cheat.
The researchers got 150 three year olds and 150 five year olds from preschools in eastern China to play a guessing game with a deck of cards. They were told that if they guessed correctly six times in a row, they would win and get a prize.
The first trial was a practice, in which the children were split into three groups, and given three different sorts of praise when they won the game: ability praise, performance praise, or no praise. Ability praise is statements like “you’re really smart,” whereas performance praise is something like “you did a good job.”
After this, five rigged trials were performed, where each child got two guesses correct and three wrong. At some point during these games, the person conducting the experiment said they had to leave the room for a while. When they did, hidden cameras picked up on whether the children would cheat and look at the cards while they were alone.
Children who were told they were smart, in the ability praise group, were more likely to cheat than those who were praised for just doing well.
In a second trial, a group of the children were told they had a reputation for being smart, and this also had the effect of making them more dishonest.
“Praise is more complex than it seems,” said Professor Kang Lee, lead author of the study, in a statement. “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.”
So telling children they are smart could have negative consequences from as young as three. One explanation offered by another of the study’s coauthors, Professor Li Zhao from Hangzhou Normal University, is that children feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if that means they have to cheat. However,
One explanation offered by another of the study’s coauthors, Professor Li Zhao from Hangzhou Normal University, is that children feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if that means they have to cheat. However, praising a child’s performance means you’re not expecting them to consistently do well and they don’t feel so pressured.
“We want to encourage children, we want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behaviour,” Lee said. “Only in this way, will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”