Praising kids for being smart may promote cheating

Parents and teachers must learn to give kids the right kind of praise as researchers have found that the wrong kind of praise can backfire. Children who are praised for being smart, or who are told they have a reputation for being smart, are more likely to be dishonest and cheat, say two studies.

“Giving children wrong kind of praise makes them dishonest,” said co-author of both the studies Kang Lee, Professor at the University of Toronto.

The first study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that pre-schoolers who were praised for being smart were more likely to cheat subsequently than those who were praised for doing “great” in a particular task.

Similarly, the second study, published in the journal Developmental Science, found that pre-schoolers who were told that they had a reputation for being smart were also more likely to cheat.

In the first study, researchers asked three and five-year-olds to play a guessing game.

When children did well on one occasion they were praised in one of two ways: one half of the children were praised for being smart, while the other half were praised for their performance.

After receiving either type of praise, the children continued to play the guessing games.

Researchers then left the room after asking children to promise not to cheat by peeking at the answers. Their behaviour was then monitored by a hidden camera.

Results showed that despite the subtle difference between the two forms of praise, the children who were praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly than the children who had been praised for their behaviour in a specific game.

The results were the same for both ages.

In the second study, researchers told each child that he or she had a reputation for being smart. Hearing this, similarly to receiving direct “smartness” praise, also had the effect of increasing children’s tendency to cheat.

“Praise is more complex than it seems,” Lee said.

Overall, for adults, the studies show the importance of learning to praise in a way that does not prompt or promote dishonest behaviour.

“We want to encourage children, we want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kind of praise, such as praising specific behaviour. Only in this way, will praise have the intended positive outcomes,” Lee added.

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