Complimenting Kids: The Nuances of Praise

Written by Zoya Egiazaryan and Gwendolyn Price

We’ve all been there. You’re playing a game with a little sibling or cousin and upon their success you proclaim “You’re so smart!” to which they smirk with pride. There is no doubt that everyone loves a good compliment, especially children. However, the type of compliment and its nuanced insinuations can have lasting effects on a child.  

Telling a child “You’re so smart!” is a common example of person-praise. Person-praise refers to complimenting an individual’s intelligence, ability, or any other seemingly fixed trait. With this type of praise, a label is prescribed to the child. It becomes a standard that they must meet, and failing to do so may be a source of anxiety. Consequently, the more person-praise a mother uses, the more likely a child is to hold an entity theory about themselves. That is, they are more likely to perceive their abilities—such as intelligence—as fixed and unchangeable (Pomerantz & Kempner, 2013). With this mindset, a child can begin to fear failure. 

Saying “You did a great job!” shifts the weight of the praise onto the child’s hard work. This is what researchers call process-praise, and it focuses on the efforts and energy that the child commits to the project at hand. More process-praise during early childhood predicted a young one’s acquisition of an incremental framework by the time they were 7 to 8 years old (Gunderson et al., 2013). In direct contrast to entity theory, incremental theory promotes the idea that intelligence is not fixed, but rather it is contingent on the person’s effort and hard work. By extension, an incremental mindset highlights the idea that achieving success is not a “you have it or you don’t” approach. 

The child’s adopted framework is especially important when it comes to facing setbacks. Children who have been accustomed to process-praise show resilience in times of failure (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). They begin to value learning opportunities that will in turn help with their future performance. By contrast, “You’re so smart!” establishes pressure to only value performance. So during that game with your younger sibling, chances are they will only want to continue to finish the match if they see themselves performing well. If they lose, then they believe they were not smart enough to win and this leads to distress and low self-esteem. 

Even with the best intentions, person-praise can have negative emotional effects on the child. When a child receives person-praise, they are likely to develop contingent self-worth, meaning they believe that their self-worth is dependent on high performance. With contingent self-worth, children are at risk for feeling unworthy and helpless (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). It is generally recognized to avoid critiquing a child on the basis of their person, however this same notion is not followed through in praise. It is crucial to focus feedback on the process and not the person for both critique and praise. That being said, the earlier the shift towards process-praise, the better.  

These effects of person- vs. process-praise are cemented in children’s minds before they leave elementary school. On the other hand, process-praise in a study with 8- to 12-year-old children did not show the same great benefits as seen in interventions with younger children. This can potentially be explained by the idea that the child was so accustomed to person-praise that when told that their hard work had paid off,  they may have perceived the comment as a suboptimal alternative to being recognized as smart (Pomerantz & Kempner, 2013). Similar findings were seen with adults, where they felt that being praised for their process was solely used when “smart” was not applicable (Reavis et al., 2018). These findings further uphold the idea that there is a window of opportunity for delivering process-praise, one that requires caution and vigilance. 

For adults, the nuances of praise are so similar that they tend to use them interchangeably without regard for the subtle connotations they hold (Cimpian et al., 2007), but young children still pick up on these differences. With this in mind, the next time you are playing that game with your little sibling or cousin, be weary of the type of praise you are imparting. It might just impact them in more ways than you realize.

Here are some examples of how to incorporate process-praise into your communication with a child:



Cimpian, A., Arce, H. C., Markman, E. M., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 18(4), 314-316. doi:

Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin‐Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1‐ to 3‐year‐olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development, 84(5), 1526-1541. doi:

Pomerantz, E. M., & Kempner, S. G. (2013). Mothers’ daily person and process praise: Implications for children’s theory of intelligence and motivation. Developmental Psychology, 49(11), 2040-2046. doi:

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52. doi:

Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847. doi:

Reavis, R. D., Miller, S. E., Grimes, J. A., & Fomukong, A. N. M. (2018). Effort as person-focused praise: “Hard worker” has negative effects for adults after a failure. The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 179(3), 117-122. doi: