Kids 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, a pair of studies from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and researchers in the U.S. and China has found.

OISE’s Jackman Institute of Child Studies (JICS) Professor Kang Lee and study co-authors say that while praise is one of the most commonly used forms of reward by parents and educators around the world, studies show that when used incorrectly, it can backfire: “Giving children wrong kind of praise makes them dishonest,” said Professor Lee.

‘Smart’ versus ‘doing great’

In the first study, “Praising young children for being smart promotes cheating”, published today in Psychological Science, preschoolers 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, in the second study, “Telling young children they have a reputation for being smart promotes cheating”, recently published in Developmental Science, preschoolers who were told that they had a reputation for being smart also became more likely to cheat.

‘Ability praise’ seen as linked to stable traits

Why is it that giving children praise for being smart promotes dishonesty?

“Praise is more complex than it seems,” said Professor Lee. “Praising a child’s ability implies that the specific behaviour that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one’s ability, such as smartness. This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behaviours or praising effort.”


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