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The Praise Puzzle: How To Motivate Kids To Be Successful

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Praising kids comes naturally to most parents -- and it's been encouraged for all of us.

But some praise might be better than others. And some kinds of praise could actually hold kids back.

That's what researchers at Stanford University found using grade school kids, and a fascinating puzzle test.

So we put their test to the test, saw some surprising results and found four easy ways to help parents solve the praise puzzle.

The Test

Dr. David Walsh and his daughter Erin conducted the tests. They're experts in children's brain development and the founders of Mind Positive Parenting. They divided the kids into two groups and gave them puzzles to solve.

One group was praised for their intelligence. The other, working on the same puzzles, was praised for their effort.

We had the kids do more puzzles and found a subtle difference in wording had a major difference in how the kids responded.

When kids who were praised for being good at puzzles had to choose between doing another easy puzzle or a more challenging one, they chose the easy puzzle.

But the kids who were praised for their hard work made the difficult choice -- even when that choice was a bit of a surprise.

"Do you enjoy working at things like this?" asked Dr. David Walsh to a girl named Ellie.

"No. Not really," Ellie said.

Nevertheless, Ellie elected to do a harder test rather than stick with an easier one.

"It does make sense that if you praise kids for their hard work, they'll want to work harder," said Anne Murphy, Ellie's mom. "Just like adults."

The Exception Proves The Rule

Hannah Martin, one of the kids in the test, chose to do a hard puzzle, even though she was praised for intelligence.

"I would rather do [the hard] one because if you do so many easy ones you can only learn so much," she said.

It was a surprise to us, but not to her mother, Kristine Martin. She said hard work has always been emphasized in her family.

"She's a smart kid, but being a hard worker and knowing that's what it takes to be successful is part of our motto at home," she said.

Although Hannah was prompted take the easy route, her at home motto overpowered the experiment's reinforcement.

How The Results Spread

Our test was based on a larger study at Stanford University, where Dr. Carol Dweck found the wrong kind of praise can have the wrong kind of results.

Although we worked with kids (ages 7-11) the Walshs say the results apply to all kids. And all parents.

"When we praise kids too much, they start to become dependent on it," David Walsh said. "They start to look for it."

Sounds crazy, but David Walsh says too much praise can actually cause problems.

"If we're constantly telling kids how smart they are, then they can inadvertently start to interpret a mistake as a failure," he said.

Solutions To The Praise Puzzle?

The Walshs have four solutions.

-- Praise effort, rather than ability.
-- Be specific, so kids know exactly what they're doing right.
-- Be sincere, because kids know when it's just lip service.
-- And be intermittent with your praise.

"You know not using praise as a fire hose, but using it appropriately. Because it starts to mean more," Erin Walsh said.

Parents should remember one thing: Self-esteem is built on competence and achievement -- and effort and hard work are major ingredients of competence and achievement, according to David Walsh.

You can find more parenting tips from the Walshs on their Mind Positive Parenting website.

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