Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying Is Normal Po Bronson, co-author of NurtureShock, explores some of the thornier issues of child rearing — including the phenomenon of "overpraising" kids and tactics for confronting children who lie.

Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying Is Normal

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A couple of years ago, Po Bronson wrote an article for New York Magazine about how parents should not talk to their children. He wrote that parents who praise their kids, figuring that praise builds self-esteem and that self-esteem leads to achievement, have got it wrong. Bronson cited research that shows that praise actually undermines kids. Well now, Po Bronson has expanded on that article in a book of new thinking about children. It's called "NurtureShock." He wrote it with Ashley Merryman. And Po Bronson joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PO BRONSON (Author, "NurtureShock"): It's an honor to be on. Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: You mention in this book that you are learning with some difficulty to withhold praise from your own kids. I'd like you to explain first why you're convinced they're better off that way, and what's an example of it?

Mr. BRONSON: Children today hear so much praise that they've decoded its real meaning. We're making a mistake in thinking that we can manipulate them without recognizing that manipulation is at hand. So, the research is clear that children only under the age of 7 take praise at face value and after that period of time, they learn the pattern. Kids who are praised a lot are the kids who teachers and parents are worried about. Therefore, to hear praise is really a sign that mama is worried about you.

When I first encountered the research on praise, I was coaching a kindergarten soccer team. My son was on the team. And until that point, I was telling the kids constantly, you're great, you're doing well, even when they were dribbling the wrong way on the field, or they dribbled the ball right off the field onto some other team's field.

And when I read the research, I was like, I have to change here. And it wasn't so easy. So I started by just praising the kids for, wow, you noticed the ball was out of bounds and you stopped, good job on that. Or, way to go in the right direction.

SIEGEL: You learned to say something that the kids would receive as accurate and therefore, sincere and truthful.

Mr. BRONSON: Right. And over time, I learned to let kids develop their own judgment about how well they had done. And when kids fail and all we do is praise them, there's a lot of duplicity in that, and kids begin to hear, nothing matters to my parents more than me doing great or me being smart. And failure becomes almost a taboo topic, something that families can't even mention.

SIEGEL: And the main arena that you're looking at here is not childhood sports. It's school performance. And that is where praise that kids can see through, according to the researchers you cite, is not just of no good use, it's actually undermining.

Mr. BRONSON: Kids who are praised a lot become obsessed with the image of looking smart. So, they tend to not want to take academic risks. And the worst consequence is that they make this conclusion: I should be getting by on my natural gifts, therefore, to show other kids I'm working hard would be to broadcast that I'm not naturally smart. When, in fact, in real life you can't get anywhere without not just some intelligence, but also a lot effort and persistence.

SIEGEL: Now, praise is just one chapter - the subject of just one chapter in your book. You also address the question, why kids lie. Why do children lie?

Mr. BRONSON: All kids lie. Almost all kids will experiment with lying at least by the age of 4. And if they start when they're younger, you might think, oh no, my kid's lacking morality. Actually, it's a sign of their nascent intelligence because it's more complicated to hold in your head, as a child, the truth and an alternative reality, and then try to sustain that alternative reality.

SIEGEL: Lying, you're saying, is an exercise in creativity, in that sense.

Mr. BRONSON: And it's normative. We should expect all children to attempt lying. The question is, what do we do with it over time? Kids who do not have it conditioned out of them by the age of 7 will tend to have habituated to lying as a way to deal with situations that are stressful, where you're going to make people unhappy. And if you don't condition it out of them, they tend to hang onto it as a habit.

SIEGEL: Have you found yourself changing the way that you deal with your own young children in terms of their lying?

Mr. BRONSON: Oh, certainly. We've done some online polling, and I agreed with the 75 percent - before I'd done all this research - that I needed to really emphasize to my kids that lying was wrong, and I would sort of threaten them with punishments. Well, it turns out that increasing the threat of punishment only turns kids into better and more frequent liars. And what I've learned to do is to tell my children in that moment, when I think that they might lie, I'll pause them and I'll say, look, you'll make me really happy if you tell me the truth. It's awkward to say it, but it does work and keeps kids from learning the habit of lying in difficult circumstances.

SIEGEL: As the way you describe it, lying, for small children, is often a way of keeping one's parents happy. The child thinks, my parent really wishes that I didn't do something in the first place. If I say I didn't, then that's my best chance of making my parent happy.

Mr. BRONSON: That's exactly right. And so we need to clearly signal to them what is the way to truly make us happy.

SIEGEL: Then you return to the subject of lying when you write about adolescence. And there's one study you report on, in which out of 36 potential topics, you found that the average teenager lies to her or his parents on about 12 of them. And there's a list here. Teens lie about what they spend their allowance on, whether they've started dating, what clothes they put on away from the house. They lie about what movie they went to - and it goes on and on and on and on and on. How do researchers now understand adolescence that's different from before?

Mr. BRONSON: Well, 78 percent of American parents think that their teenagers can tell them anything. But the teens completely disagree because while the average teen might be lying to their parents about 12 of the 36 common topics, even the teens who lie the least are still lying. They're lying about five topics out of the 36.

Parents today imagine that there's a trade-off between being strict and being permissive, and that the benefit of some permissiveness is honesty, that you're going to hear the truth and not be kept in the dark. So you'll be able to help. The science says that those permissive parents do not hear more truth from their kids.

And the best way to hear truth from kids is to set a few rules, consistently enforce them - and then this is one that's going to sound controversial, Robert: parents who negotiate occasionally with their teens. We need to see that some arguing with parents, a moderate amount of argument, is actually a good thing, not a bad thing, that arguing is a sign of respect, not of disrespect.

SIEGEL: How is arguing a sign of respect?

Mr. BRONSON: Because to the teenager, they have two choices: telling you the truth and leading to an argument, or just outright lying. Arguing over the actual rules is a better alternative, and very different thing, than arguing over your authority as a parent to set rules at all.

SIEGEL: Po Bronson, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. BRONSON: Thank you, Robert, I really appreciate it.

SIEGEL: Po Bronson is the author, with Ashley Merryman, of the book, "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children."

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