What's the best way to praise a child? Be specific.

In 1999, Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck made a striking discovery about the best way to praise children. When you are helping a child learn to read, saying "you are a smart girl" as opposed to "you did a good job reading" results in very different behavior when she has trouble reading in the future. Children who have received praise about their abilities ("you're smart") rather than specific praise about a task ("you did a good job ___") are more likely to exhibit "helpless" behavior when they encounter problems. Even though they were praised in both cases, telling kids they are "smart" just didn't motivate them the way specific praise did.

It's hard to deny the child's logic in this case. "I am a smart girl," she may think. "But I can't read this sentence. Therefore it must be impossible." But if she believes that she was able to do a good job reading in the past, then maybe if she just tries a little harder, she will eventually be able to surmount the current problems.

The lesson seems to be that generic praise is less effective than specific praise. But how generic is too generic? A new study led by Andrei Cimpian makes a subtler distinction between the generic and specific praise to see if the effect persists.

Instead of praising kids with "you are good" or "you are smart," they offered more specific generic praise. Children were given a pretend drawing task, and were praised either with "you are a good drawer" (generic) or "you did a good job drawing" (specific). What did they find? First, let's take a closer look at what Cimpian's team did.

Four-year-olds picked a puppet to represent themselves pretending to draw. The experimenter had a second "Teacher Debbie" puppet. Teacher Debbie told the child "draw" a tree using the puppet and a green pipe-cleaner "crayon." Teacher Debbie then praised the child using either specific praise ("you did a good job drawing") or generic praise ("you are a good drawer"). This was repeated with three different drawings.

Then the child was asked about her/his experiences with the third drawing -- how they felt about the drawing, and about the activity in general.

Next there was one more positive drawing experience, followed by two negative experiences. First Teacher Debbie asked the child to draw a school bus. When the child had her/his puppet show the "drawing" to the teacher, she complained that it didn't look like a bus because it had no wheels. Next the kids drew cats, again rated as unsatisfactory because they had no ears.

After these negative experiences, the kids were again asked how they felt about their drawings, and whether they'd like to try again. Here are the results:


After the positive drawing experiences, there was no difference in the responses. But after the negative experiences, kids responded better to each of these two questions when they had previously received specific praise. Responses to six other questions didn't rise to the level of significance, but when all responses were combined, the effect of specific praise was dramatic. All the questions were designed to measure helpless behavior, and generic praise was associated with helpless behavior with prep = .953. (This means, roughly, that we're about 95 percent certain that repeating this experiment will give the same results [see this post for more on prep].)

That's quite an endorsement for specific praise. Even relatively focused generic praise appears to be associated with helpless behavior -- and four-year-olds are quite responsive to a seemingly subtle difference in the language of praise.

For more on Dweck's work with praise, see this nice cover article from New York magazine.

Cimpian, A., Arce, H.C., Markman, E.M., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children's motivation. Psychological Science, 18(4), 314-316.

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Most grownups use the two-pronged (or three-pronged) approach, but only the malign kind. There is no praise or encouragement, only 'correction', attacking the kid and the misdeed, and possibly demanding explanations. Demand perfection, and punish imperfection.

"You idiot! Look at this mess! What the hell is wrong with you!"

BTW, I think it's a mistake to refer to this as 'negative', which makes it seem nearly innocuous. It is being mean, cruel, punitive, hurtful. It is malice.

I find these studies fascinating, because they run counter to what I'd guess is a pretty widespread intuition, that either this level of wording doesn't matter or that general reinforcement of a kid's abilities is better. One can easily imagine thought processes to explain the current findings, but they aren't those one would ordinarily have attributed to toddlers...

[bangs head on table at thought of the impossibility of Good Parenting]

It seems odd to me to define the difference between "you are a good drawer" and "you did a good job drawing" as generic vs. specific. They seem equally specific, with a difference in what is being labeled.

In the first case, the child herself is being evaluated/labeled. She is a "good drawer," thus implying that with a bad picture she herself becomes a "bad drawer." If she herself is a "bad" something, then it follows that there's no reason to try again.

In the second, he is being told that a particular effort of his was good: he did "a good job." It's the piece of work that's being evaluated/labeled, not the child himself. If he finds that sometimes his "job" is good, sometimes bad, it makes sense that he might try for a better job next time.

I think the main lesson to be learned here is to evaluate and label accomplishments and objects, not children. Merely telling those who interact with children that praise needs to be quite specific isn't, I think, likely to work so well. I doubt that getting more specific along the lines of "you're a good drawer today at this minute with this particular crayon and this particular subject matter" would help much, if any. Perhaps the message handed down from this research to childcare workers needs to be more along the lines of "Give praise to the child's handling of specific pieces of work/accomplishments/behavior instead of praising or labeling the child directly."

I saw the same thing in four decades of teaching composition and business writing to college students. Until I could get the student to change from "I'm a bad writer" (or, "But I'm a good writer!) to "that's a bad piece of writing," little progress was likely to be made. As soon as the student focused on the quality of the piece of work, he/she became far more open to learning ways to improve.

Any thoughts/research on cross-task impact of generic vs specific praise? In other words, if praise is tailored to be more specific does it have an effect on their general confidence regarding other tasks? If I tell the child "You are smart," that may apply generally and may increase confidence for novel, unlearned tasks. If I tell them "You did a good job drawing," that may reduce helplessness when faced with difficulty but it may also have a reduced impact for general beliefs of capability.

By Daniel Carruth (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

What happens if you are both general and specific? "Sally, you are a smart girl. You read that sentence well." If both are praises are true, you have little to worry about.

I have to disagree with Commenter #1. First, the experiment was designed to measure the effect of differing types of praise, not the effects of verbal abuse. Second, I do not believe most parents are only abusive. These verbal attacks are despicable and can cause lasting harm, which makes me all the more disturbed that my stepson will continue to be raised by a woman given to such behavior. They do not represent the norm, and they are not the focus of this study.

If you find it helpful, try mentally framing this study as something applicable to yuppie families. Stereotypical members of this group are soccer moms and baseball dads, with money to spare and time to dedicate to parenting with the consummate detail of tending rare orchids. These stereotypical parents put great store by self-esteem, and strive to praise their children often (but not too often -- the parenting books cover that, now, too). Nonetheless, their children demonstrate a learned helplessness not so different from less-privileged kids raised in desperate, hopeless circumstances. They are incapable of adapting to not being mummy's little snowflake, not being the top student at yale, and not being good at things. They do not learn; they deny or avoid the challenge and flagellate themselves in the manner of extreme perfectionists for being only as gifted as they are, not as talented as they feel they ought to be. What went wrong?

This study explores the hypothesis that these often-praised kids have been praised for things they have no control over, rather than things they can control. By praising controllable specifics, the parents' children are better able to rebound and thrive in challenging circumstances. They do not consider themselves helpless because they have been praised for the results of their effort. Effort is something that can be controlled.

This applies to children of every economic class, not a narrow caricature of the moneyed, and has significant implications for educators as well as parents. If rethinking how we praise and encourage will allow the kids in our care to grow into stronger, more capable adults, then we should think very hard indeed. This study is only a tiny tool of evaluation from a growing body of evidence which indicates we should do just that. The results shown in the lab setting are compelling. Now give us twenty years to field test it in the real world.

I'm with JuliaL; the praise isn't specific versus general. When praising my four year old daughter, I praise the effort she put into the result and the result (and occasionally a very general praise.) For example, I might tell her that she put a good effort into building a toy structure and that I really like it (perhaps praising specific aspects of the structure or telling her that I was proud of her if she had succeeded at something tricky after several failed efforts.) My goal is to prevent the "can't do it" barrier and to encourage continued effort at a task.

By Craig Pennington (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

Good point, Craig. I'm not sure this study really addresses praise at the level you're suggesting, though. Do we know for sure that praising "effort" is the key? Or is avoiding general praise the key? I wonder if there's a way to test praising effort versus praising other specific aspects of performing an activity.

Very interesting research, although, it is not entirely novel given similar implications have been made concerning the impact of teacher (and more generally, coaching) verbal feedback on academic and sports performance.

However, the results do provide an interesting developmental perspective to Seligman's optimistic and pessimistic explanatory style constructs. Namely, that optimists tend to have external, unstable, and specific explanations for negative events (consistent with learning via specific praise--"That is a good drawing"); and pessimists tend to have internal, stable, and global explanations for negative events (consistent with learning via generic praise-- "You are a good drawer"). For this to be clear, I'd have to agree with #3's general argument that the terms "specific" and "generic" praise aren't the best labels for the linguistic phenomena being addressed. Seems better to refer to them as task vs. person-directed speech.

In terms of practical implications, I'm not sure it will be anything knew to parents (and teachers) that have an authoritative (likely task-directed)communication style; but will be useful knowledge for parents and teachers having an authoritarian (likely person-directed)communication style as suggested by commenter #1.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

A more recent article about Carol Dweck and her colleagues had a slightly different message than general versus specific praise.

Children were placed into two groups, and each group was given a (very easy) puzzle to solve. They all solved it. One group was praised for the intelligence: "You are very smart". The other group was praised for their effort: "You really worked hard on that problem."

Later, the children were given more challenging puzzles to solve. The ones who were praised for their intelligence gave up, while those praised for their effort went on to solve the harder puzzles.

I think that the message from this study (described here) is that it helps kids to praise something that the kids have control over. They can control how hard they work, but they can't control how naturally intelligent they are. When faced with a hard problem, the kids who were told that they were smart must have either concluded that the praise was false (I guess I'm not so smart, after all) or that the challenging puzzles were impossible (if I don't see how to solve it, it must be impossible).

Purely on instinct, my wife and I made a policy early on with our son (now 14) when it came to praise and reprimand. Praise was specific. Not just 'look what a good drawing you did' -- but 'I really like the way you've done the trees. You put a lot of thought into that. That's great'.

We banned phrases like 'you're naughty' or 'you're stupid' -- but instead went for 'you're a really good boy - why did you do something like that?' or 'you're so clever - this isn't like you...'

Our hope was that we embedded the positive reinforcement even when discouraging bad behaviour. It seems to have worked well. He's a great kid.

Like I said - there wasn't really any science in it, we just thought it sounded like it made sense.

Of related interest, this article discusses recent studies showing that self esteem programs in schools can actually fuel depression.

I just ran across this article and i am this four year old child, only i've grown up and always wondered why I never thought I could improve at anything. HA HA!

"I am a smart girl," she may think. "But I can't read this sentence. Therefore it must be impossible."

Interesting article. I work with companion amimals, mostly dogs. If I am trying to extinguish a behavior without damaging the animal's willingness to continue to engage with me or the situation(helplesness in turns of the article), I use simultaneous praise and correction. The negative stimulus is physical while the positive reinforcement is usually verbal. For example, when teaching a puppy not to jump up on a person, I give the correction while the cooperative person is instructed to continuously praise the puppy unless I tell them to stop. The goal is to have the puppy greet the person without leaping up. Briefly, I give the puppy a problem to solve. If he greets the person, he gets praised. If he jumps, I give him a correction (which is designed to be only mildly unpleasant since I don't want him to stop greeting people). The praise is designed to encourage him to continue the greeting behavior. There is no emotional loading (no! bad dog! is totally missing) associated with the negative stimulus and the person being greeted does not correct. Given consistency and the proper intensity of praise and correction, the jumping behavior can be significantly reduced in 2 sessions. This scenario provides the animal with a problem to solve with lots of reward and no emotional confrontation. This is a case in which the specific behavior is extinguished while all other greeting behavior is reinforced. After jumping up is rare, the technique can be used to work with other greeting problems such as grabbing hands with the mouth. One might think that this technique would provide ambivalent messages so the puppy would not be able to identify the behavior that is corrected and might become averse to greeting. This does not happen with normal, outgoing puppies. The technique is unsuitable for anxious or fearful puppies and one immediately stops the session if a puppy stops wanting to greet the person.

By Lynne - animal… (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

Interesting, and it does make sense. I'm guessing it is an evolutionary imperative to extrapolate from being good at a specific task and apply it to other tasks, more than from a generic/abstract concept. The brain in this context is probably something akin to a difference machine, where it sums up how many specific tasks you have successfully completed in the past, and from that concludes how likely you are to complete another one. As already mentioned, abstractions can be very widely interpreted and perhaps do not serve as well in establishing overall conceptions of one self as it comes to practical tasks.

By Gangemedes (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

I've seen another study somewhere (I can't recall where) that recommended praising effort rather than ability. It mentioned that if a child is told that she is good at math and comes across a problem she can't do, she's more likely to try to avoid it than if she were told that she must have tried hard to do whatever math problem she was able to solve.

When I work with my pediatric clients, I have to constantly give them feedback on how well they pronounced a sound or answered a question. So when we are doing an activity with the work, I try to always be very positive and specific as I was with my own kids. I think the best for of praise is a true description of an accomplishment with emotional excitement in your voice. For, example, instead of saying to a child "You made a good Lego tower!" I would say "You made a Lego tower with five blocks!" and sound as though he had invented fire. I think using words like good even when describing an action are still too general--what is good?

My own son taught me a wonderful lesson on this type of praise. When he turned four, he had a typical birthday party where his friends lined up to give him presents. One boy gave him a toy that he had just recieved for Christmas. Instead of complaining, my son said excitedly, "I have another flashlight like this at home, and now I have TWO!" Thanks!"

By Ann Nunnally (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

There are so many pressures around us in life, and children learn self confidence by observing how their care givers deal with challenges in the home, with the neighbors, and in work. Are we, the parents, adjusted and self-confident, are we enjoying life, are we spontaneous? We hold life's mirror and try our best to apply the best technique. The child, though, is also watching our reflection as we hold that mirror. Adults teach children more by example, and in the end, the child can perceive the sincerity of our specific positive re-enforcement.

Every child (every person) needs the validation of being seen. "You idiot" is better than nothing, if that's all you can get. "You're smart" and "You sure have pretty hair" are a lot better. Next step up IMO is really noticing something specific: "You have new shoes on today!"

Whether praising the result of a task or the effort put into it is better, may depend on the child. And some children seem not to like any praise at all; I've taught a few of those and it's hard.

Hello, I just bumped into this thread by accident but you guys got me scratching my head?!?
As a middle-aged father of two young teenagers (boy/girl), I'm not getting much of any of all of this.


You can say ANYTHING positive, neutral, jokingly negative or even nothing at all to your kids as long as you accompany it with raised brows, a smile and a warm arm around the shoulder.... and you'll get nothing but great results.

Kids aren't stupid. They can figure out all this other stuff on their own.

Hello, I just bumped into this thread by accident but you guys got me scratching my head?!?
As a middle-aged father of two young teenagers (boy/girl), I'm not getting much of any of all of this.


You can say ANYTHING positive, neutral, jokingly negative or even nothing at all to your kids as long as you accompany it with raised brows, a smile and a warm arm around the shoulder.... and you'll get nothing but great results.

Kids aren't stupid. They can figure out all this other stuff on their own.

** I think you raise a very important point about the use of nonverbal communication (e.g., hugging, arm on shoulder) as a form of (generic) praise. However, a few important points that attenuates the argument: (1) the article is relevant knowledge for adults and not 4-year-olds so it's not really for children to figure out; (2)the study focused on 4-year-olds whose reactions to adults are more impressionable than teenagers; and (3) (the most important point of this entire discussion) certain (verbal) comments may have an impact that may not be obvious without some evaluation.

Consider two situations: a child comes home with an excellent score on a test vs. a child coming home with a poor score. If the excellent score child comes home, you might give the child a hug and say "You did a good job"; and this seems important and specific enough feedback that would lead to further similar performance. If the child comes home with a bad grade, and the child is given a hug and arm on the shoulder and one says the same thing, or worse, makes a joking negative comment such as, "Looks like they forgot to give you the other 90%", I am certain that will not have a beneficial effect on any level. Furthermore, the feedback will likely lead to further similar performance.

So the importance of this discussion is that when it comes to children (e.g., 12 and under), who may not as yet developed sophisticated ways to engage in cognitive self-regulation, it is likely that what an adult consistently says to a child as it concerns important (especially negative) events in their life, will determine how they will respond to such events in the future.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 15 Sep 2007 #permalink

This article is very interesting. Yet, it seems that one psychological aspect has been forgotten. When a person says "you are a good drawer", there are several feelings and forces that interact.
- a subjective evaluation of the person's ability to do draw
- a positionning of the parent above the child as an authority
- an expectation from the parent to which the child will/might have to answer regularly
- or in opposition to the previous point, a validation of the efforts of the child, which can make him feel that he has reached a goal, and does not need to continue improving
- finally, it may bring the notion that the child did the drawing for the adult

If the praise is specific, on the opposite,
- the effort and the challenge is validated without putting any expectation on the child's ability.
- It leaves aside the feeling of the adult,
- and leaves the opportunity for the child to decide whether to continue or not.

To much of one type of praise or too little of the other would probably result in the difference of behavior of grown-ups with the same back ground and education.
This article was definitely interesting, thanks!

Fascinating. As an educator, I know I'll be more conscious of the kind of praise I give. I wonder if one reason kids react to the "general" praise the way they do is the tendency most of us have to interpret general praise as a compliment, and take it with a grain of salt. I notice that my students don't tend to believe general praise aimed at themselves, but praise of their work, especially when it's grounded in specifics is a lot harder to discount.
"You're smart!"
("No I'm not." or "He's just trying to be nice.")
"You really got the green right in those leaves"
("Where? Oh. I see what he means...")

I have to say that this totally meshes with problems we have with our five year old. I am really glad to have read this, I look forward to adjusting our approach with him. I have a feeling that we have been inadvertently reinforcing his tendency towards perfectionism, i.e. he doesn't like to do things unless he can do them "right." I doubt this will be a cure all, we do tend to be specific with our praise at times. I think the problem lies in the fact that we are only specific with our praise, when he does a particular task really well. We don't do enough "building up" specific praise, rather relying on "you're a very smart boy, I'm sure you can do this," sorts of building praise.

Bill -

I would love to think that that is enough, but I seriously doubt it, at least with very small children. Don't get me wrong, it is a critical element to raising children. Their self esteem grows exponentially when they know they are smart and they know they are loved, but they also need clarity. I think that it's easy to dismiss newfangled ideas in childrearing, especially in the hindsight you seem to be coming from. However, for parents who are struggling with various problems, new ideas can be a godsend. Especially when they click, like this did for me. It just makes sense, in light of various problems we are having with our own young child. I read the first couple paragraphs of this article to my partner and she slapped herself on the forehead, same as I did, rather metaphorically.

I also think it's important to realize that kids are also very different. What works with one child, may not work so well with another. Likewise, what makes a critical difference in one child's life, may be entirely meaningless to another. Considering this in the context of my own child, I have a pretty good idea that adjustments his mom and I make, may well have a profound impact on his life.

Speaking as a parent of a 3 yr old, I can honestly say that we make a concerted effort of labeling behavior rather than our child. So far, we've seen that his confidence has remained intact, and even though he consistently tests his limits, he still thinks of himself in a positive manner. He is also becoming better equipped to make appropriate decisions in specific situations. The trick is to not go overboard with praise every time he say... uses the potty correctly. Children who are over-praised for daily tasks become accustomed to such, and come to expect such praise from everyone. So, we're setting them up for disappointment if we over-praise them at home. Whew! Who knew child-rearing was so tricky?!!!

Chama--I think you are doing exactly the right thing by fading the praise on the potty behavior. When a child has mastered a task, he or she is ready to move on to the next challenge. All praise should not be calculated. It can be a moment of genuine joy you are sharing with your child.

Bill, I hope your kids write memoirs. I would love to read their thoughts about how you cheerfully called them idiots while you hugged them.

By Ann Nunnally (not verified) on 18 Sep 2007 #permalink

Parent education that uses the theories of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs (Children: The Challenge, 1964) has been teaching parents for 50+ years to use encouragement in place of generic praise. Encouragement includes the "specific praise" focusing on effort mentioned above, as well as just describing in detail what the child is doing without any judgement, expressing detailed appreciation for contribution ("Thank you for running to help me with the groceries. Without your help it would have taken me two trips to bring them all in."), keeping the child in charge of his problems, rather than fixing it for him. There is more information on the research on praise and rewards in Alfie Kohn's book, "Punished By Rewards". For parents who want to learn how to eliminate generic praise from their vocabulary and replace it with encouragement or effort-based praise, find an Adlerian-based parenting class. In the Washington, DC area there's the Parent Encouragement Program. In the rest of the country there are Positive Discipline, Systematic Training in Effective Discipline, and Active Parenting classes.

Bill, you can't say anything that pops into your head to a child in a positive voice beyond a certain age without the kid figuring out what you're doing. They're smart that way.

There is a creature that can be foole by a positive tone of voice, but it's called a dog.

I always use "wow, that didn't totally suck" with my 4-year-old. Now, I'll try things like "you sure did a great job not getting pee over EVERY square inch of the toilet!" Thanks for the help!

In truth, this is a well understood teaching skill (well, with good teachers, anyway). Specificity in praise works better. Additionally, specificity in CORRECTION is essential. "You did a great job picking up the kitty" works, as does "the kitty didn't like it when you squished his guts out her mouth like that" (yes, we just got a kitty).

Kids are smart. They understand nuances that we just assume are beyond them. Smart little monkeys!

By Charles Soto (not verified) on 27 Sep 2007 #permalink

It is a mistake to attempt to judge drawing skills.

"Oh that's not a bus because it has no wheels"

the correct reponse here is "well F U becuase that's the way I wanted to draw it!"

Most of the time its "sit up!" "pay attention" "get your head off the table!"

If a child reads a sentance correctly, then you can say "you read that correctly" if they read it wrong you say "you read that incorrectly"

do you know how to do it? here is how you do it.

do you know this word? This is how it is pronounced and what it means.

I am happy that you understand what I am saying and you are able to get it right.

There is a beautiful and old book by Haim Ginot, "Between Parent and Child" that talks about giving always specific praise to children.


I was a volunteer to do wednesday afternoon activities with children and didn't like to give the same praise to all and choose only one best drawing. I saw children felt hurt when I didn't give attention to them. Every drawing has its merit. I found I prefer to say something precise and different of each drawing instead. Also I tell them that I'm good at drawing because I practised at it for ten years. I've learned a lot about parenting on internet and by making mistakes.

I think it's interesting how much focus there is on what to say when your child has a good accomplishment but litte focus on what to do when they don't do a good job and know it. This is the hard, and thankfully rare, part. If they worked hard, you could say you're proud of that and "can't win 'em all" sort of thing, but what if they didn't work hard? Is it then time to bring out the negative reinforcement?

Perhaps we all like to think that all kids will succeed at any task if they put enough work into it and also that kids will always be motivated to do well. That's not always the case, however. It seems just as possible that a child could work hard, fail because they are not naturally skilled in that area, and subsequently see futility in trying if not handled correctly. I've got no answers, just musings.

(If it's drawing, it's one thing, but tasks that are more clearly right/wrong to the child are quite another)

In 1999, Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck discovered what the the followers of the Alfred Adler/Rudolf Dreikurs method of childrearing have known for years. Thanks to Patti for bringing it up. Raymond Corsini, a student of Dreikurs, started the Family Education Centers of Hawaii in 1964, and he and Genevieve Painter wrote "Effective Discipline in the Home and School" in 1990. These methods are alive and well, and are highly recommended to any parent.

By Susan Brant (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

As one of the kids who was told I was smart, it really stung that all the prizes at school were for effort or for 'improvement'. A friend of mine (who was clearly much smarter than I was!) deliberately started off with poor results so she could demonstrate her improvement. I got A+ from the beginning, no amount of effort could improve my marks - so why would I ever put in more effort than I needed to get the A+ (or, later, the first-class degree)?

I agree that praising specifics of a piece of work is more believable to the child - but I used to laugh at the people who tried to praise my 'effort' at producing a good piece of work when I knew I'd put in a lot less effort than my friends with lower grades. (The effort grade could be higher than the normal grade, but never lower...)