04/29/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Will Praising Character Help Us Raise Moral Children?

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In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Adam Grant addressed how to raise a moral child. He suggested that parents praise character. Grant based this suggestion on research showing that children were more likely to share following character-praise ("You're a helpful person") than behavior-praise ("That was such a helpful thing to do").

For the last several decades, parents have been told the exact opposite for academic achievement -- that children do worse after hearing character-praise ("you're a good reader") than behavior-praise ("you did a good job reading"). What are we to make of this discrepancy? Should parents use different forms of praise to promote moral behavior and academic achievement?

No. In recommending character-praise, Grant overlooks a key piece of the previous literature --the form of praise matters most when children make mistakes or encounter setbacks.

The problem with praising character is that it leads children to think categorically, to believe that there are helpers and not-helpers; good kids and bad kids; good readers and bad readers. This is all fine when children succeed -- when they feel confident that they are in the "helper," "good kid" or "reader" group. But mistakes and setbacks are inevitable parts of childhood -- children drop plates when they try to help set the table, choose not to share because they badly want the last cookie or stumble when reading challenging new words.

When it comes to achievement, children who think categorically --a well-documented consequence of character-focused praise -- avoid challenging situations, withdraw in the face of setbacks and explain performance in terms of inherent abilities instead of effort and practice. All of this suggests that character-focused praise makes children scared of finding out that they are in the "poor reader" group, for example, leading them to withdraw from situations where they might not perform perfectly.

If similar processes operate for moral behavior -- and there is no reason to expect they don't -- then character-focused praise would lead children to withdraw from trying to do good, if they find themselves having accidentally done bad (as in the broken dish) or intentionally behaved selfishly (eaten the last cookie).

None of the studies on how praise influences moral behavior have examined the consequences once children make mistakes or experience setbacks. Until such studies are done, it is premature to recommend character-focused praise. Given the large body of research documenting the negative consequences of character-focused praise, there is good reason to be skeptical.

Praising character can lead children to view the world as made up of kind people and unkind people. A more useful way to view the world may be to believe that there are kind things and unkind things, and that people can increase their moral goodness by striving to do as many kind things as they can.