When we praise a child, our wording can either be specific (e.g. “You did a good job drawing”) or generic (e.g. “You are a good drawer”). According to Andrei Cimpian and colleagues this subtle distinction can make a big difference to children's motivation when things go wrong.
The researchers played a kind of drawing game with 24 four-year-old children using hand-held puppets. The researchers controlled a 'teacher puppet' that asked the children's puppets to draw different objects. No drawing was actually performed, instead the children had to mime their puppet doing the drawing.
For the first four drawings the researchers responded as if the drawings had been a success. Crucially, half the children were praised generically whereas the other children were praised non-generically.
Then for the next two drawings, the researchers responded as though the children's puppets had failed to draw correctly (e.g. saying they had omitted wheels on a bus or ears on a cat). This was to see how the children responded to criticism.
The children who had earlier been told they were good drawers responded badly to the criticism. They lost interest in the drawing and failed to come up with strategies to correct the drawing mistakes. By contrast, the children previously praised in a non-generic fashion, responded better to the criticism, and came up with ways to rectify the failed drawings.
The idea is that if children are given generic praise – in this case being told they are a good drawer – this leads them to believe they have a stable, trait-like drawing ability. This belief turns to loss of morale when confronted with failure or criticism. By contrast, the non-generic praise, specific to a given episode, is rewarding without leading to false confidence.
Cimpian, A., Arce, H-M. C., Markman, E.M. & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children's motivation. Psychological Science, 18, 314-316.