Brighten Youth Education Centre



On the function of praise


You hear it everywhere you go, in coffee shops, supermarkets and restaurants. Parents cooing “good girl” and “what a clever boy”. Nothing wrong with that surely? Parents are simply being warm and encouraging, perhaps in a way that they never experienced when they were young, demonstrating unconditional love and support as children learn and interact with the world.

Yet it might be more helpful if we considered the function of praise before handing it out so indiscriminately. In a now famous study from 1998 two psychologists, Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, asked 128 children between the ages of ten and eleven to complete some mathematic problems ( Praise Can Undermine Motivation and Performance_0.pdf). After completing the first set, each child was handed a single sentence of praise. Some were praised for their intellect, others for their hard work. When they were then handed a more challenging set of problems, those praised for their diligence demonstrated a greater willingness to attempt new approaches, a greater resilience to mistakes and tended to attribute their failure to insufficient hard work, rather than a lack of intellect. Those who were praise for their intellect tended to choose problems that confirmed what they already knew, showed less tenacity when the problems got harder, and, when later asked to write to children in another school, lied by inflating their scores. They demonstrated a loss of self-confidence, motivation and performance.

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, in his excellent work The Examined Life, warns of the dangers of undiscerning praise ( He cautions us against doling out empty praise, which does little for a child’s sense of self. Instead he advocates praising a child when they do something that is genuinely difficult, like sharing a toy or showing patience, rather than doing what children should be able to do, like playing or reading age appropriate books. What was more helpful for the child was when the adult they were with demonstrated that they were present by asking appropriate questions or having discussions. When a child finishes a page in a book, perhaps expecting praise, a question about the child’s opinion or a comment about the story so far is of more help than the obligatory “well done”. The aim is to observe and listen in an unhurried manner.

This approach builds a child’s confidence by showing them that they are worth thinking about. It encourages the child to engage in the activity itself, whatever it may be, rather than simply seeing it as a method to gain praise and attention. It also models attentiveness for the child, for the activity they are doing, for other people, and for themselves, something that Grosz considers one of life’s greatest challenges.


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