Friday, January 16, 2015

The Destructive Power of Praise

Many parents today believe in the power of telling children they're smart and talented. As a music teacher, I've had parents ask me, often at their child's very first lesson, whether or not they had talent. I get it--I'm a parent too, I love hearing about how wonderful my baby is. Yet, research overwhelmingly shows that praise, especially the wrong kind of praise, does not have the effect parents think it does. In fact, praising children for their intelligence or their talent undermines their motivation and leaves them helpless and unhappy. How could something with so much good intent behind it fail so miserably?

In her research, Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that praising a child's talent created a "fixed" mindset. In other words, kids start to think that the only things that matters to success, talent and intelligence, are set in stone and no amount of work or effort will change their abilities. In a field like music, where practice is an essential part to developing our musical abilities, students with a "fixed" mindset might avoid practicing too much, since they think talented people don't need to practice. It's hard to imagine a more destructive idea, yet I've heard variations of this in students of all ages. Often, these students quickly become frustrated with their progress, and give up instead of working on difficult sections or techniques. So how can we s teachers (and sometimes parents) avoid creating a "fixed" mindset in our students?
First, it's important to understand the difference between praise and positive feedback. Praise is the generic kind of "good job!" encouragement we give out to students without really thinking about it. Positive feedback, on the other hand, is thoughtful and specific. For example, "you sound much better now that you're keeping your bow parallel to the bridge" or "you play more smoothly now that you have a better hand position." Positive feedback reminds students that good playing depends on what they do, not some mysterious inner quality they might not possess. Over time, it also empowers students to identify and correct their own mistakes, so they can practice more effectively. Generic praise, on the other hand, can make students dependent on the teacher to constantly validate and encourage them.

When we do give praise, it's best to praise a student's hard work and effort, not a supposedly fixed quality like talent. Dweck's research showed that students praise for their effort developed a "growth" mindset. Because these students believed they could increase their talent and abilities with effort, they had more motivation, put in more effort on difficult problems, and did not give up. In music lessons, creating a growth mindset might mean praising a student for practicing, staying focused in a lesson, and making an effort. I also tell students that everyone has to practice their music to sound beautiful. After all, even Beethoven and Mozart practiced the piano and worked hard to perfect their talents. The best musicians in the world don't practice less than other musicians because of their amazing talent--they often practice more.

While it's understandable that parents and teachers want to praise kids for their talent, it's important that we realize that the wrong kind of praise saps students' motivation and robs them of a growth mindset. Rather, it's important we let students know that struggle and hard work is an essential part of learning. Musical talent isn't "fixed," but it's largely dependent on practice. Even one of the greatest musicians of all time, J.S. Bach, said he believed that anyone could achieve his level of ability if they worked as hard as he did. Bach was being extraordinarily modest, but his attitude shows that he had a growth mindset as well.


  1. This is interesting. It reminds me of Angela Duckworth's theory on why kids succeed, which is that kids do best when they have grit (the ability to remain interested and committed to an activity, even in spite of failure). And even more interestingly, grit and talent aren't directly related. That is, if you are a natural at piano, it doesn't make you any more likely to stick with it and put in the practice necessary to master it. You can watch her TED talk here:

  2. Thanks! I think kids who get too much praise don't have as much opportunity to develop grit. It's a pity! The more talented or intelligent a child is, the more we need to challenge them.

  3. Great post. I have three children, one who is naturally academic and two that need time and assistance. I treat them all equally and watch as they motivate each other to succeed. It's very rewarding to see a 13 yr old boy help his younger sister with a maths problem.

    1. Exactly! And your son learns study skills and the benefits of hard work and helping others.