The Dangers of Praise and Positive Labeling

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Monday Morning Message

As you read the title of this article you might be thinking, “Scott, what’s wrong with praise?”   When I was first introduced to this topic, I had strong, negative reactions to the idea.  The concept that praise and positive labels may be negative is addressed in the book Mindset by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.  Dweck reveals her research showing that praising a child’s ability led to a loss of performance, decrease in tendency to choose challenging activities, and diminished enjoyment of the activity that was being praised.  On the other hand, when the child’s effort was praised, it led to an increase in performance, greater tendency to choose challenging activities, and enjoyment of the same activity.

As I reflected on the idea of praise and positive labeling, I was reminded of my days of childhood little league.  My friend Gary and I only played formal baseball for one year and were on two different teams.  Gary played for Dick’s Hardware and his team was polished, talented and in contention for the championship each year.  Gary often talked about the intensity of his coach and the focus on winning, he eventually quit, saying that he just didn’t love baseball anymore.

My experience was much different. I played on Nanfito’s Roofing and our team was made up primarily of kids who had never played formal baseball.  We were reminiscent of the old Bad News Bears, limited in skill, challenged in teamwork, but abundant in love for the game of baseball.  Our coach constantly encouraged us and praised our best efforts while teaching us the fundamentals of the game.  When the season ended for us with no wins, he had us all  gather at his house with our parents and he gave us awards by identifying areas that he saw each of us grow throughout the season.  I didn’t play little league the next year, but it was through that experience that I discovered another sport that I loved even more: soccer which I played for many, many years.

What does this mean for us?  Should I stop praising the kids I work with?  Absolutely not!  Praise them!  Praise their effort, rather.  “Gee Marcy, you really worked hard on this painting.”  Refrain from praising their ability.  “Tom, you are an incredibly talented soccer player.”  In a nutshell, be wise with your praise.


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