How parents praise a toddler affects behavior much later

Dr. Gregory Ramey / Cox Newspapers /

DAYTON, Ohio — The benefits of praising good behavior are a fundamental tenet of virtually every parenting book. However, how you praise your toddler significantly impacts his or her behavior several years later, according to research soon to be published in Child Development by Elizabeth Gunderson and others.

This was a clever research project. Parents were observed praising their children at ages 14, 26 and 38 months of age. The children were then re-evaluated when they were 7 and 8 years old. Parents who used a particular type of praise with their youngsters had children who developed more positive attributes when they were older.

The researchers documented two different ways that parents acknowledge their children.

The experts described the first type of compliments as “process praise.” These parents encouraged their children’s efforts, not outcome. An example of process praise is telling a child that he “worked really hard,” or similar words to describe a child’s actions or strategies.

The second type of praise was referred to as “person praise.” These compliments described a child’s attributes or abilities. Examples of person praise include “you’re so smart” and “you’re good at that.”

When the researchers evaluated the children at 7 and 8 years of age, the parents who used process praise had children with a more positive motivational framework. These kids were more likely to be interested in solving more challenging tasks and persisting when confronted with failure.

Whenever you verbally reward your child, you are affecting not only a particular behavior but also your youngster’s internal way of viewing him- or herself. While accomplishments ultimately matter, it’s really your child’s efforts, persistence and problem solving that should be the focus.

— Dr. Gregory Ramey is a child psychologist.