The Power of Precision Praise

Anyone who works with or has parented children knows the power of praise. Praise is one of those tools that can really help children succeed and flourish. The nod from a beaming dad, the encouraging word from mum, the comments from an influential teacher, colleague or boss can all become defining moments in the life of a child or any of us.  Just think back over your life and think of times you have been praised for a job well done and how you stood a little taller and became a little stronger as a result. That’s the awesome power of praise.

What is not well understood are the negative consequences that some praise can have. Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, in their book Nurture Shock —New Thinking about Children, cite studies that indicate some praise actually harms children and causes them to have increased anxiety, to underperform at school and to do poorly otherwise.   For example, in a random trial with school children, telling half the group they “must be smart at this” (nonspecific praise) and the other half “they must have tried really hard”, the smart group underperformed in further activities, while those told they worked hard in the exercise, continued to accelerate their results.  The conclusion reached by the study was something long understood by top teachers, and that is the power of precision praise.

Praise must be linked to key specific behaviours for it to be effective otherwise it has the opposite effect

The researchers discovered that telling kids they were smart or a genius actually increased their anxiety, led to underperforming in future work. The reason was the label smart, or genius gave them performance anxiety. The kids were thinking: “what if next time I am not so good?” or “what if I fail?” or the biggest fear “I won’t be a genius or smart anymore.” “Better if I don’t try ‘cause then I can always say, oh yeah, the reason for that low score was because I didn’t really try.”  

The message is clear; link praise with precision onto the precise behaviour that was excellent. Give constructive feedback on how to improve and watch children flourish. If little Susie got 85% in a maths test, then saying to her “you are genius at maths” might actually harm her. It would be much better to say, “I love how your hard work paid off and how you did well in your maths test. What’s even better is if you are more careful with your algebra your score will get even better next time. Well done Susie.”

It is interesting that Jesus well understood the power of precision praise. Right in the heart of one of his more profound parables on making the most of the opportunities to do good and share kindness and compassion with others in your life, he said: “The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’” Matthew 25:23.

So make sure you link your praise with precision on the good behaviours you see in your children and then watch how they do even better in the future. 

Neil Thompson
Life Coach and Minister

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