Double Thumbs Up

Photo Credit: Brendan Riley
Photo Credit: Brendan Riley

A little while ago I wrote a post about how the way we praise children influences their motivation. Previously, researchers have looked at two specific verbal praises: linking children’s success to a stable trait (e.g., “you’re so smart”) and linking children’s success to effort (e.g., “you worked really hard”). Researchers generally find that the first kind of praise actually reduces children’s motivation after a failure. The logic is this: if I succeeded because I’m smart, and now I’ve failed, I must be too stupid to do this. That’s not a fun place to be in, by the way. In contrast, the second kind of praise increases motivation: if I succeeded because I worked hard, and now I failed, I just have to work harder next time.

So, here are some great news: two researchers from Ohio found that gesture praise, such as a thumbs-up or a high-five, and vague verbal praise (e.g., “great!”) function in the same way as linking children’s success explicitly to effort, as opposed to a stable trait.

What They Did

These authors conducted a straight-forward and elegant research: they randomly assigned 5- and 6-year-old children into five groups: children either got specific trait praise, specific effort praise, vague verbal praise, a thumbs up gesture, or a high-five gesture. They first measured everyone’s motivation levels, to show the children had similar levels of motivation going into the experiment. Then, they showed all groups of children four “successful” works (on which they received praise according to the condition they were assigned to), followed by two “failed” works (incomplete drawings, such as a cat without ears). They measured children’s motivation levels after these “failures”.

What They Found

First, all children had similar motivation levels at the beginning of the study. After they heard the praise for the successful works and saw the incomplete pictures, children in the first group (who heard praise such as “you’re a good drawer”) had lower motivation, and were more likely to focus on errors than the other groups. Children in the vague verbal and gesture praise groups showed similar levels of motivation as the children who received specific effort praise (“you did a good job drawing”).

What It Means

My kids think they’re awesome all on their own, they do not require me to tell them this. I noticed that I don’t often say to my kids “you succeeded because you worked hard”. I tend to either say “great” or give them a thumbs-up (and sometimes, when they’ve done something very excellent, a “double thumbs-up”, as my daughter calls it). I’m really glad to know that they interpret this in the most positive way they can—it tells us something about children’s resilience. The lesson for parents here is clear: if you don’t have anything nice to say, give them a high-five.

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