Should Children Be Praised for Their Intelligence or Their Efforts?

By David B. Ryan
Productive praise offers genuine feelings for hard work and effort.
Productive praise offers genuine feelings for hard work and effort.

Kids need to feel loved and secure, but most children also feel good hearing praise for precision and encouraging comments for failed efforts. Appropriate and genuine encouragement helps your child learn to keep trying after failure. Determining the right time to offer positive praise during a failed effort needs some practice so your child doesn't see the words as gratuitous or patronizing. Intelligence doesn't always mean success in life, and parents should try to send the right message with praise.

Encouragement Vs. Praise

Parents sometimes confuse encouragement with praise. These two can go together, but encouragement doesn't need to include words of praise that refer to your child's intelligence. Timothy Evans, educator, author and family therapist, writing for the International Child and Youth Care Network, defines encouragement as positive expressions that stress improvement or effort -- not necessarily comments that predict outcomes of the child's actions. Evans warns parents about always expecting kids to achieve "the best" to receive praise and appreciation from family.

Open and Closed Mindsets

Kids learn to use intelligence by modeling the way parents introduce and handle cognitive abilities. Developmental Psychologist Carol Dweck defines the intelligence mindset as open or closed, and the type of praise parents use assists in defining the child's perception of cognitive abilities. The fixed mindset sees intelligence -- both in self and in others -- as a static trait, while the open-mindset group focuses on development and growth. Praising children for intelligence reinforces a fixed mindset, while praise for effort promotes growth beyond a static belief. Telling your child "I know you can get an A instead of a B" stresses intelligence, as opposed to focusing on praise for the education effort, such as "I know you did your best on that test." The comment encouraging your child to do her best reinforces transfer skills for future efforts.

Best Practices

Efforts at building self-esteem can backfire when parents praise children for intellectual qualities after a failed attempt at something unrelated to intelligence, according to the American Psychological Association. For example, a comment telling the child "You're a smart boy. You can throw the ball!" confuses young children. A few general words of encouragement for efforts separates the action from the child, so kids can fail and still feel confident to try again without any personal stigma. The use of continual encouragement as part of a cooperative atmosphere for the family helps children learn self-confidence in place of relying on praise for motivation.

Appropriate Comments

Child Psychologist Jim Taylor warns parents against common types of generic praise, such as "Good Job!" Taylor classifies comments, including "Way to go" and "That's great," as lazy praise and claims the words have little or no value to children. Comments that encourage children, however, focus on effort and questions that ask children for personal opinions to complete a job or finish an assignment. Comments such as "You're a hard worker" or "What do you think we should do to fix the problem?" offer praise for effort and encourage children to use intelligence to solve problems.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.