Teachers know that learning proceeds best when we comment on what a student does, not who the student is. For example, it is better to say, “I see that you studied hard for the math test” instead of “You’re really good at math.”
That’s partly in order not to create persistent negative expectations when the outcome isn’t ideal. It’s easy for a student to conclude, “I’m really lousy at math” (or “I’m really lousy at Hebrew”) instead of thinking, “This subject requires some extra effort.”
Another reason, however, is to avoid creating anxiety about repeating a success. In that situation, it is even more helpful to interpret the student’s work to him or her and not state a simple judgment.
This seems to be the case consistently for academic learning, but some new research suggests that it doesn’t apply for moral development.
Research had already demonstrated that it can be difficult to transmit ethical values to children. For example, an Israeli study of 591 families found that parents who valued compassion and kindness did not necessarily inculcate those values in their children.
The new research suggests that, for moral values, it may sometimes be better to praise a child for being a certain type of person than for doing a certain type of thing. Although many parents and teachers believe it is better to say, “That was a thoughtful thing to do” than “You are a thoughtful person,” the research leads to the opposite conclusion.
In one study, children who donated some of their winnings in a game to others were randomly assigned to three groups. Children in one group received praise for doing something helpful, while those in the second were told that they donated because they were helpful people. The third group was told neither.
Weeks later, eight-year-olds in the second group were found to be more altruistic than those in either the first group or the third. One lesson that has been drawn is that praising a child’s identity is more effective than praising the child’s behavior.
That conclusion might not apply to younger or older children. Neither praise for behavior nor praise for identity increased feelings of altruism in five-year-olds, and both increased feelings of altruism in ten-year-olds.
On the other hand, both kinds of praise increased the likelihood that children would donate again, in all three age groups.
Popular reports on this research, such as a widely-quoted New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania, have somewhat misrepresented the research results. Based on that study, we could conclude only that praising identity over behavior is effective with eight-year-olds, not necessarily at other ages.
A different study found that young children (ages three through six) were more likely to help with a task when asked to “be a helper” rather than “to help.” Research also found that exhortation “not to be a cheater” was more effective than “not to cheat.”
Those two studies suggest that helping children to develop a favorable self-image has stronger effects on behavior than only teaching desirable behavior. It’s what I’d expect: once you see yourself as helpful or kind, making the helpful or kind choice is almost automatic.
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman compared these research studies to the Four Children in the Passover haggadah. Nowadays we object, rightly, to labeling children unnecessarily, but the research suggests that very judicious labeling (not calling a child a rasha, wicked one) might be beneficial. Rabbi Mitelman writes:
While we may still grapple with the Haggadah “labeling” children, the truth is, our behaviors create our identity, and our identity informs our behavior. After all, some of us relish being "the curious one" or "the provocative one," some of us are always just happy to be together with friends and family, and some of us need to be shown what we are missing.
In the end, Passover reminds us that we are free, which means that we have the freedom to choose how we act. Yet those actions will ultimately define who we are.
So with all the questions this holiday encourages, perhaps the most important one is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”