TUESDAY, Feb. 12, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Telling your young children that they are smart may not be all that wise.
A new study found that it's probably not helpful for parents to shower their young daughters or sons with commentary meant to boost self-esteem. Instead, the right kind of praise and encouragement may help children be more open to change and eager for the harder tasks that provide opportunities to learn.
The research suggests that toddlers whose parents regularly said things like "You tried really hard on that," rather than "Wonderful," may have an edge as early as five years later when it comes to taking on challenges. This type of praise sent by parents early on can affect how the children size up their capabilities, researchers said.
"Telling kids they're intelligent rather than praising the positive steps they're taking to solve a problem as they play can make them question their intelligence when they encounter something that's harder for them to do," said study author Elizabeth Gunderson, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia.
Gunderson said parents tend to establish one of two "praise styles" early on, either focusing on what a child is doing or, instead, on his or her personal characteristics. So, while one parent might say something like "You kept trying until that puzzle piece fit in there," another might instinctively say, "You're good at that."
Focusing on the process or activity -- in this case, finding the right puzzle piece -- communicates that effort and actions can lead to success. Focusing on the child's characteristics seems to unintentionally telegraph that his or her ability is fixed, she explained.
Despite any differences in parents' natural style, parents can be taught to deliver more process-oriented praise, Gunderson said. "This research has definitely influenced what I do with my own 1-year-old son," she added.
For the study, published Feb. 12 in the journal Child Development, the researchers videotaped 53 toddlers and their parents interacting at home for 90 minutes. The parents were told that they were participating in a study of child language development, to avoid having them focus on what they were specifically saying to their children.
From the tapes, instances in which parents praise their children were analyzed by whether they emphasized strategies, effort and action or positive qualities of the child. The researchers noted factors such as race, ethnicity and income level of the parents to help ensure the study results were not affected by that data. They did not assess, or control for, the child's level of intelligence.
Then, five years later, when the children were about 7 to 8 years old, the researchers followed up with the same families, assessing whether the children seemed to prefer easy or challenging tasks, and if they were easily frustrated when they hit a stumbling block.
In situations in which parents tended to praise actions more than a child's characteristics, the children reported having more positive attitudes toward challenges, were better able to come up with ways to overcome setbacks and believed that they could improve with hard work. The study also found that the total amount of praise did not affect the children's responses.
The researchers discovered a gender difference related to the praise style of parents. Although boys and girls received about the same amount of praise overall, boys tended to get more process praise than did girls. Five years later, boys on average were more comfortable facing intellectual challenges and were more likely to think they could become smarter through hard work than did girls.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said the study helps make the distinction parents need between communicating to children that they can accomplish something and just raising their self-esteem. "It means reinforcing to kids that they can do something," Twenge said.
While Twenge said she thought the researchers did a good job of controlling for outside variables, she noted that it is impossible to measure everything in this type of research, called a "correlational study." She also noted that any time parents are being watched and videotaped, their actions and comments may not reflect what they would be doing when not being observed and recorded. But she said the new study is "a nice complement to previous experimental data."
The study, while not directly related to self-esteem, sheds light on why blindly pouring positive messages to children isn't effective, Twenge said. "Self-esteem in and of itself doesn't lead to good things, such as good grades or preventing bad behavior," she said. "It's better to focus on self-efficacy -- thinking you can do something -- and self-control. This type of praise, focusing on action, points to that."
The bottom line for parents is actually quite simple, study author Gunderson said. "It's really about fostering the mindset that challenge and effort are good, and you can always improve if you work hard."
Learn more about child development from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.