From Snuggle to Struggle – Part 2: Good Job Praising, Mommy!

Just like many mothers, I make sure I praise my children and “catch them while they’re good”.  At the beginning of the summer, while I was working from home with two kids running around, I even had that sentence written in capital letters on my calendar, to remind me to keep my head cool and notice positive behaviors.

Not long ago, I received a dose of my own medicine, and frankly I didn’t like it so much. While talking about business between grown-ups, someone, all too serious, celebrated my achievement with a “good job, mommy”.  Good job mommy? Really? My success seemed suddenly diminished, belittled. It felt like a blurred compliment without meaning. Wasn’t that a little condescending, or even patronizing? I clearly would have preferred hearing about what I did right; details would have been nice!

When it comes to praising young children, I do not think that they receive praise much differently than we do. Overall, the type of praise we use will affect the perception they have of their own success.

Dr. Jin Li, Professor of Education and Human Development at Brown University, examined that same idea. Just like Dr. Stigler did in Japan, she also focused on differences in education between Asia and the Occident (the Western world), but more precisely, Dr. Li studied “how children across cultures develop learning beliefs,” and how “these beliefs influence their achievement”. Her findings demonstrate how a mother’s way to praise her children matters, and how praise affects children’s learning and personal beliefs, and therefore their success. Thus, what matters is not only to use praise, but also to use the right type of praise.

The following example is adapted from her work. Consider the differences between the two mother-child conversations below, and see if you can you guess which one increases a child’s self-confidence, pride, and belief that he can do it:

American mother #1: You won the prize! I am so proud of you!
American mother #2: Good job; you are so smart!
Asian mother #3: You won the prize because you trained really hard, you insisted on training harder until you perfected that skill, and it paid off!
Asian mother #4: I like how you kept on trying until you succeeded. You must feel so proud of what you have accomplished!

So which praise is best? Why is a particular praise better than another?

The answer lies in the interpretation of success. Whereas the two first American mothers describe the child’s success as if it was caused by external factors that are out of the child’s control, the following two Asian mothers attribute success as coming from inside. In one case, the child is told he won because he was born smart, the implication being that this is what makes his mom proud. In the other, he believes he won because he worked hard and trained more. According to the study, Asian mothers tend to encourage the effort, not the success, and the child’s personal sense of pride reinforces his desire to hard work and train for future tasks. This type of encouragement increases a child’s ability to feel in control of his actions (sense of agency), and his self-confidence regarding his own abilities (sense of self-efficacy). Not only will this develop his problem-solving skills, but it will also foster his self-confidence as he learns that he CAN do it on his own.

Our tip: Encourage the effort.

When it comes to young children, the most important thing we parents can do is notice and recognize the effort more than the performance. “Good job” is way overused – it makes me cringe! Instead try to say something like “Nice, I see how hard you have worked on drawing a number three with two loops. Now let’s try to make them tighter.” And you don’t have to make it that fancy. Here are a few more ways to encourage effort, even when it comes without success: “Amazing effort,” “You’ve got it,” “You’re on target,” “Good thinking,” “Hard worker!” And my personal favorite: “Respect!”

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