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Parents who want to raise children who are good at solving problems – and who doesn’t? – should watch how they hand out praise to their toddlers, researchers said Tuesday.
Praising little ones for their efforts -- rather than for being who they are -- helped make them problem-solvers who think success results from hard work five years later, researchers at the University of Chicago and Stanford University said in the journal Child Development.
That means a parent might say, “You worked really hard,” rather than saying, “You are such a smart girl.” The messages, the researchers said, have different effects -- and they influence the way children view the potential for change when they grow older.
Other studies have examined praise with older children, and in a laboratory setting, said Elizabeth Gunderson, who is now a psychology professor at Temple University but was at Chicago during the study.
"This study suggests that improving the quality of parents' praise in the toddler years may help children develop the belief that people can change and that challenging tasks provide opportunities to learn," Gunderson said.
The researchers videotaped 53 toddlers and their parents at their homes in the Chicago area. They found different kinds of praise on the tapes. (Praise, by the way, was just 3% of the overall utterances, the researchers said.) Five years later, they followed up with the children to check their attitudes toward challenging versus easy tasks, overcoming setbacks, and improving.
“Process praise,” or praising the effort, increases persistence, because it suggests that effort leads to success. Most of those praises were simple, such as “good job” or “good running,” the researchers said.
“Person praise,” such as, "You are such a kind boy," makes the person perform less well on challenging tasks because he believes the effort won't change his ability.
Five years later, the children completed two oral questionnaires that assessed their approach to challenges. The kids who were give more process praise could think of more strategies to overcome setbacks. The recipients of person praise, on the other hand, felt that their traits were not changeable.
The study noted that the research did not establish a causal relationship between the praise and the later beliefs, and suggested that additional research focus on the impact of praise on actual behavior.
One worrisome note, Gunderson said, was that boys got significantly more praise for their efforts than girls – even though the genders received the same amount of overall praise. And at the five-year mark, the boys were more likely to have positive approaches to challenges.
"These results are cause for concern because they suggest that parents may be inadvertently creating the mindset among girls that traits are fixed, leading to decreased motivation and persistence in the face of challenges and setbacks," Gunderson said in a statement.
Another study in the same journal also looked at the way parents treat siblings differently – not just boys or girls. It’s probably not a surprise to anyone who has a sibling that parents don’t treat all their children the same way.
And that’s sometimes a good thing, said researchers from McMaster University and the Universities of Toronto and Rochester. Children don’t always have the same needs, they note.
But differential parenting, as it’s called, can hurt not just a child who receives negative treatment but all the children in the family. The researchers, who looked at almost 400 families, also found that the more “risks” the parents had, the more likely they’ll treat the children more differentially. (Those risks included such things as depression, poverty, household chaos, level of maternal education.)
“In families in which most of [the] resources are devoted to coping with economic stress, depression and/or marital conflict, parents may become less consciously or intentionally equitable and more driven by preferences or child characteristics in their child-rearing efforts,” the researchers wrote.
The study included families with up to four children, with average ages of 2 to 5. Most previous studies looked at pairs of siblings. Information about the families was gathered both by observations in the homes and from the mothers.
The more risk factors that were present, the greater range of the way children were treated. And when kids in a family were treated very differently, all the children in the family had more mental health problems, the researchers said.
"In all likelihood, this occurred because differential parenting sets up a dynamic that is very divisive," Jennifer M. Jenkins, Atkinson chair of early child development and education at the University of Toronto, who led the team, said in a statement.