Careful With the Kudos

What builds durable self-esteem in kids? A scientific study offers some clues.

As Pack 97’s monthly committee meeting draws to a close, a parent offers a radical suggestion: cancel the annual pinewood derby. “If one kid’s a winner, that means the others are all losers,” he argues. “That can be devastating to those kids’ self-esteem.”

The Cubmaster disagrees, pointing out that competition is a fact of life. After much discussion, the committee chairman offers a compromise: run the pinewood derby, but give everyone a prize. “If we have to, we’ll make up categories—the car with the most decals, for example,” he says.

Who’s right? Read on to find out.

The Psychology of Self-Esteem

For decades, experts have argued that self-esteem is a fragile plant that can only be cultivated through an abundance of praise and an absence of criticism. Scientific proof was scarce, however, so a team of researchers at Columbia University devised an experiment. Led by psychologist Carol Dweck, the researchers gave 400 fifth-graders a series of IQ tests.

The first test was simple, and all the students did well. Afterward, half the students received person praise (“You must be smart at this.”), while half received process praise (“You must have worked really hard.”).

Those simple words made a world of difference in subsequent rounds. When students got to pick between easy and hard tests, most of the person-praise group picked an easy test, but 90 percent of the process-praise group picked a hard one. Moreover, the process-praise group enjoyed the harder tests, while the person-praise group worried that failure would make them look less smart.

In the last part of the experiment, all the kids were given a test that was as easy as the first. The person-praise kids scored 20 percent worse than on the first test, while the process-praise kids did 30 percent better.

“Person praise gives you no recipe for facing challenges or recovering from setbacks,” Dweck said. “Process praise is about what you do to be successful, so it’s informative.”

Praise Junkies

Of course, we all love to tell our children that they’re smart or beautiful or talented, but such praise is like junk food—tasty but ultimately unsatisfying. “When you give it, they like it,” Dweck said. “But it makes them quite vulnerable.”

What’s more, by age 7, kids can see through false praise. In fact, Dweck said, “Research shows that, by adolescence, if you praise kids for something easy, they understand it to mean you don’t think highly of them.”

And the Derby Decision Is…

So what should Pack 97 do about the pinewood derby? They should keep it on the calendar, giving awards to the winners, process praise to the boys who worked hard, and constructive criticism to those who didn’t do their best. “We cannot hand children self-esteem on a silver platter, which is what we’re trying to do with person praise,” Dweck said. “What you can do is give them the tools to manage their own self-esteem, to take on challenges and see them through, to build and maintain their own self-esteem.”

For More Information

To learn more about Carol Dweck’s research, see her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or visit brainology.us.

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