Parents who praise effort can bolster children’s persistence, self-belief

Toddlers who receive praise of their efforts, such as “you worked hard on that,” rather than praise of their personal qualities, such as “you’re a good girl,” are more likely to prefer challenging tasks and to believe that hard work can improve intelligence and personality, new research at the University of Chicago reveals.

The kind of praise focused on effort, called process praise, “sends the message that effort and actions are the sources of success, leading children to believe they can improve their performance through hard work,” said Elizabeth Gunderson, assistant professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author on a study conducted while she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

The findings, published in the paper “Parent Praise to 1-3 Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later,” are the first to show the impact of parents’ praise in a naturalistic setting. The study, published online in the journal Child Development, was conducted by researchers from Stanford University as well as the University of Chicago.

Short-term laboratory studies have found that process praise results in greater persistence and better performance on challenging tasks. Praise that is focused on the child’s characteristics, such as “You’re a big boy,” sends the message that a child’s ability is fixed and results in decreased persistence and performance.

In the new study, scholars found that the percentage of process praise parents used when their children were one to three years old significantly predicted whether children welcomed challenges, had strategies for overcoming failure, and thought intelligence and personality were malleable five years later.

For the study, the team videotaped 53 children and their parents during everyday interactions at home. Each family was videotaped three times, when children were 1, 2 and 3 years old. From the videotapes, the scholars identified instances in which parents praised their children and classified their praise as either process praise, person praise or other praise.

Process praise emphasized a child’s effort, strategies or actions (“You’re doing a good job”). Person praise implied that a child possessed a fixed, positive quality, (“You’re so smart”). Other praise included all other types of praise (“Nice” or “There you go”).

Researchers followed up with the children five years later, when they were 7 to 8 years old. The follow-up assessed whether they preferred challenging versus easy tasks, were able to generate strategies for overcoming setbacks, and believed that intelligence and personality are traits that can be developed (rather than being unchangeable).

When parents used a larger percentage of process praise, their children reported more positive approaches to challenges and believed that their traits could improve with effort. However, the children's responses were not related to the total amount of praise they received.

“In addition, parents of boys used a greater percentage of process praise than parents of girls. Later, boys were more likely to have positive attitudes about academic challenges than girls and to believe that intelligence could be improved,” said co-author Susan Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago.

“Our results demonstrate that process praise—praise that emphasizes children’s effort, actions and strategies—predicts children’s attitudes toward challenges and their beliefs about trait malleability five years later,” Gunderson said. “These findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise may help children develop the belief that their future success is in their own hands.” 

Other authors in the study were Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at UChicago; Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford; and Stanford graduate students Sarah Gripshover and Carissa Romero.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and by the National Center for Education Research.