the signs of helplessness failed, they felt they were bad. And they
thought badness was a stable trait--"that's the way I am." However,
when kindergartners with a mastery-orientation failed, they simply
assumed they were still good but needed to do something differently--
they thought their intelligence or coping ability was changeable!
Through several experiments, it was shown that judgmental criticism
of the child increased his/her helpless attitude and negative self-
appraisal, including deeply feeling unworthy or bad. Neglect and
criticism are the classic sources of a low self-concept. However, critical
feedback that included suggesting trying a new approach or exerting
more effort produced a mastery-oriented reaction, not self-criticism.
Now, what about praise? If negative judgmental criticism harms,
does praise build confidence and mastery? Well, usually but sometimes
not. Why not? Because statements like "Oh, you do that really well--
that's good" or "You learned that quickly--you must be really smart"
imply to the child that his/her basic qualities can be inferred from their
performance. Therefore, when a child who has learned to think this
way fails, one obvious possible conclusion he/she might draw is "I'm
no good" or "I'm stupid," even though the person giving the feedback
had not said anything like that. I consider this an important finding.
Praise worded somewhat differently, e.g. that says "you did really well,
you must have tried very hard," did not result in helpless thinking or in
"I'm dumb--that's the way it is" preoccupation when they later
experienced a failure. Praise that attributed success to effort or a good
strategy led to optimistic mastery-thinking.
We clinical psychologists are prone to assume that a child with a
self-degrading, self-hating, defeatist attitude lived in a neglectful or
psychologically destructive early environment. Often that is true. But
this research provides evidence that negative self-concepts can come
from simple mis-interpretations of genuine compliments by a 5-year-
old. It seems incredible that such mis-interpretations ("failure means I
am bad") repeated perhaps thousands of times might lead to a suicidal
teenager or a self-injuring 25-year-old. But, in some cases, our minds
may actually develop in what, at the time, seem to be accidental or
capricious--unpredictable--ways. Yet, one can understand how
negative, self-destructive thinking can arise from a child's
misunderstanding and without any abuse.
At this stage of our knowledge, Dweck and Sorich (1999) wisely
caution against labeling children "very intelligent" or "really gifted."
Further supporting this caution, they found that children praised for
their intelligence became so invested in looking smart that 40% lied
about their scores to "look good." And, at the same time, the
intelligence-praised kids started selecting tasks that made them look
smart and avoiding tasks that afforded more challenge and more
learning opportunities (which effort-praised children selected). Self-
confidence seems to rest on the belief that "I can do better by trying
harder" which is built on praise and appreciation of effort and problem-
solving strategy. Thus, mastery-thinkers focus on how to accomplish
some goal, how to use their skills, increase their abilities, sustain their