There seems to be a growing movement of people who thing that praise is bad for children, as for example on the Not School blog. The thesis seems to be:

A child who receives praise, rewards, and constant evaluation through testing and grading will tend to remain dependent on an authority to bestow a positive judgment. The academically successful child could grow up with the opposite of self-esteem-- we could call it other-esteem. Nor can I see how the current school system fosters intrinsic joy in learning or accomplishing tasks. And forget about independence, autonomy, and critical thinking. Too much "positive reinforcement" does not truly reinforce the individual; it engenders dependence.

This doesn't seem to be a mainstream phenomenon (though I stand to be corrected on that).

I understand the mainstream press typically advocates praise as a crucial role in the success of children. For example the BBC's article "The words that could unlock your child" states, i.e.:

This reveals a radical new approach to the way we engage with children - that we should praise effort, never talent; that we should teach kids to see challenges as learning opportunities rather than threats; and that we should emphasise how abilities can be transformed.


If, on the other hand, [a student] really believes that effort trumps talent - labelled the "growth mindset" - she will persevere. She will not see failure as an indictment, but as an opportunity to adapt and grow. And, if she is right, she will eventually excel.

While this article is only imply that praise is good, it seems to be advocating praise of effort instead of praise for results -- in other words, I read it to be saying "not all praise is good". Leading us to my skepticism.

What evidence is there to support the conclusion that certain types of praise for children are bad? Where "bad" means, as the article suggests, children forget about "independence, autonomy, and critical thinking" and the praise "engenders dependence". "Bad" also includes the consequences of this result.

Further: What evidence is there to support the conclusion that only certain types of praise are good, and in particular (a) only praising the efforts? or (b) only praising accomplishment?

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    I thought the anti-praise movement held that empty praise was problematic because the child can't actually perform well on an objective level which leads to lack of confidence and social dependence on friendly authority figures. But this seems to be a different phenomenon (or an offshoot)?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 1:32
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    Speaking as a parent, my impression is that there is no end of childrearing ideas invented by people who aren't parents. I don't know if this is one of them. Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 2:31
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    there's a big space between not even praising your child for a stellar grade in school and constantly praising it whenever it does anything. The best path to take is probably somewhere in the middle :)
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 6:43
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    @jwenting - Buddha was right again. Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 7:12
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    this reminds me of Sean Lock's rant about a school play: "I thought [those children] were sh*t ... The truth hurts" :)
    – Oliver_C
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 10:21

2 Answers 2


This is a repost of a December 2007 Scientific American article which discusses the effects of praising effort over intelligence. In particular if focuses on the importance of mindset, and how some forms of praise in earlier stages of development can affect mindset. It claims that students who were praised as intelligent became worried about continuing to appear intelligent, which, it could be argued, is 'bad' praise:

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school... [and]

...the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

And from the very BBC article you cited:

Carol Dweck, a leading psychologist, took 400 students and gave them a simple puzzle.

Afterwards, each of the students were given six words of praise. Half were praised for intelligence: "Wow, you must be really smart!" The other half were praised for effort: "Wow, you must be hard working!"

Dweck was seeking to test whether these simple words, with their subtly different emphases, could make a difference to the student's mindsets. The results were remarkable.

After the first test, the students were given a choice of whether to take a hard or an easy test.

A full two-thirds of the students praised for intelligence chose the easy task - they did not want to risk losing their "smart" label. But 90% of the effort-praised group chose the tough test - they wanted to prove just how hard working they were.

Then, the experiment came full circle, giving the students a chance to take a test of equal difficulty to the first test.

The group praised for intelligence showed a 20% decline in performance compared with the first test, even though it was no harder. But the effort-praised group increased their score by 30%. Failure had actually spurred them on.

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    I just very recently read that paper as well, it's a very illuminating read.
    – Lagerbaer
    Commented Feb 19, 2012 at 5:39

The advantage of effort-praising and the "Growth Mindset" over achievement-praising and the "fixed mindset" is largely based on about 30 years of work by Carol Dweck and colleagues.

... children given praise such as "good job, you're very smart" are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, whereas if given compliments like "good job, you worked very hard" they are likely to develop a growth mindset.

Since the time this question was asked, there have been at least 2 independent replication attempts (ie, not involving Carol Dweck's team), both of which failed to find an effect - see Rienzo et al (2015), and Li & Bates (2017).

Dweck's body of research has also faced quite a bit of criticism recently regarding methodological issues, and signs of pseudoscience (unfalsifiable). In response to the failure of others to reproduce her results, Dweck has backed off of the optimistic magic-bullet version of the theory often promoted to educators, and acknowledges a more nuanced reality that is still being investigated.

A more recent review of published data by Sisk et al (2018) concludes:

Overall effects were weak for both meta-analyses. However, some results supported specific tenets of the theory, namely, that students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.

I suspect it's premature to make any strong conclusions ready for the classroom.


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