Praising Toddlers

boy and girl toddlers standing outside wearing coats and jeans

How do you praise your toddler? Does it matter? Well, according to psychologist Carol Dweck, it does matter. Dweck and her team demonstrated through research that praising children for their effort rather than their inherent traits not only has short term benefits but also leads to children adopting a so-called “incremental mindset” meaning they see ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn.

Carol Dweck is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, why people succeed (or don’t) and how to foster success. Dweck studied how parents praise their children in real life situations and monitored how the style of praise affected the children’s attitude five years later. She observed how 53 parents interacted with their children during normal everyday activities in their own homes. The observations took place when the children were aged 14, 26 and 38 months. Five years later, the children were asked questions about their attitudes towards ability, challenges and moral goodness.

The main finding was that those children who had been praised for effort, or process praise (e.g. “good job”), were more likely to have an “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven.  These children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder. Carol Dweck concluded that the process praise children hear bears a relationship to their motivation later in life.toddler happy playing outside

Other sorts of praise that the team noticed was what they termed “person praise” (e.g. “you’re so smart”) but this sort of praise was so limited (less than 10% of all praise related words) that the researchers could not find a link between the early tendency to praise this way and later ability.

Although they acknowledged the limitations of their study which included the fact that it was observational and therefore does not prove a link between the praise style of parents and children’s later abilities, the team said the results did have important real life implications.

boy and girl toddlers standing outside wearing coats and jeans“In particular,” they said, “praise that emphasises children’s effort, actions, and strategies may not only predict but also impact and shape the development of children’s motivational frameworks in the cognitive and social domains.”

The study did support older research that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys.

This could be the reason that later on in life that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science which is a problem for girls in high school.  This study raises the possibility that this could be due in part to the way they are praised at an early age.

How do you praise your toddler? Do let me know your thoughts on this by commenting below.

This was a guest post by Dot Blakemore, a Chartered Psychologist with many years experience in child studies, the co-author of Psychology for A2 level, and can be followed on Twitter.

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