Is It Better to Praise Children for Ability or Effort?

In 2006, groundbreaking research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck theorized that telling a child that he or she is smart, rather than praising the child for effort on a specific task, tends to reduce motivation to learn, and hampers the child's ability to deal with setbacks. In 2017, two new studies published in the journal Psychological Science add a moral element to the theory, finding that children who have been told that they are smart may resort to cheating and dishonesty when faced with intellectual obstacles. The study results indicate that this may occur in children as young as three.

Studying different kinds of praise:

  • The researchers said that children with a reputation for being smart have added “pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so.”
  • Both studies focused on kindergarten and preschool-aged children. In one study, researchers studied 300 children in eastern China, using a guessing game and a hidden camera. The results were the same for boys and girls.
  • “What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well,” said co-author Gail Heyman.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of praising children for effort rather than ability?

Praising children for effort, known as process praise, encourages a growth mindset, which is the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. This type of praise fosters resilience, a love of learning, and perseverance in the face of challenges. According to Carol Dweck's research, children who are praised for effort are more likely to embrace challenges and persist after experiencing failure, as they come to understand that effort can lead to improvement and success.

Can praising children for their abilities be harmful?

Praising children solely for their abilities can inadvertently lead to a fixed mindset, where children may believe their talents are innate and unchangeable. This mindset can make them more vulnerable to giving up when faced with difficulties, as they may interpret struggles as a lack of natural ability. Studies have shown that children who receive ability praise may avoid tasks that could challenge their perceived intelligence, limiting their learning opportunities and potential for growth.

How does the type of praise given to children affect their academic performance?

The type of praise children receive can significantly impact their academic performance. Research indicates that children who are praised for their effort tend to have better academic outcomes because they are more likely to take on challenging tasks and persist in solving difficult problems. For instance, a study by Mueller and Dweck (1998) found that children who were praised for effort showed greater task enjoyment, task persistence, and performance improvement over time compared to those praised for intelligence.

Is there a difference in the impact of praise on children of different ages?

Yes, the impact of praise can vary with age. Younger children may not distinguish between effort and ability as clearly as older children do. As children grow, they develop a more nuanced understanding of their own abilities and the role of effort in achieving success. Older children, particularly those in adolescence, may benefit more from effort-based praise as they face increasingly complex challenges and can appreciate the value of persistence and hard work.

How should parents and educators balance praise for ability and effort?

Parents and educators should aim to balance praise for ability and effort by recognizing genuine achievements and talents while also emphasizing the importance of hard work and strategy. It's crucial to acknowledge when a child has a talent, but it should be coupled with praise for the effort and process that led to the outcome. This balanced approach helps children understand that while they may have certain abilities, it's their effort and strategies that will allow them to develop and succeed in the long term.

More Info: University of California, San Diego

Discussion Comments


Again, we need replication and studies using more subjects at different ages. This is not science.

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