The Praise Debate
How to Encourage Our Children to Work Hard, Embrace Failure and Enjoy the Ride
Praise is such a natural part of parenting. It provides our children with positive reinforcement and should be given freely. But parental praise comes with one big caveat…be careful what you praise them for. Our words tell children how to think about themselves and with best intentions when we say things like, “Great job, you scored so many goals. You’re a natural!” we send our child the message that trying hard means you aren’t as talented and that success should come easily. Instead we should aim to praise our children for their effort, not their talent.
Research shows that children praised for outcome will choose easier tasks to prove they are smart or talented and gain our approval. Praising children for effort on the other hand, is what leads them to choose harder tasks because they know we value effort.
To understand why this happens we first need to understand some ground breaking research out of Stanford University identifying two different mindsets: fixed mindset and growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset we believe that our intelligence and talent are something we are born with and can’t really change. This leads us to the false assumption that talent alone, without hard work, will lead to success. Extensive research has shown that children with this mindset give up easily and often avoid challenges.
In a growth mindset, on the other hand, we see ourselves as growing and developing. We believe we can build any skill with effort and this can help us create a love of learning and an excitement around new challenges. We see the brain like a muscle, the more effort we put in, the bigger it grows. As a result, children with a growth mindset ultimately reach higher levels of success.
So the next time you want to encourage your child give praise freely for these growth mindset builders:
- Things accomplished through practice, studying, good strategies, perseverance, and concentration.
- For choosing challenging projects.
- For trying different strategies.
- For improvement.
- For passion.
When your child does something very quickly and easily, recognize that the task didn’t challenge them and say “Sorry about that. I guess that was too easy. Next time let’s choose something that will really help you grow.”
Try to avoid praise that judges their intellect, talent and speed rather than effort. Praising these qualities unintentionally has an adverse effect when our child faces difficult tasks, as it can create a fear of failure, increased procrastination and cause our children to quit when things get difficult.
The first year my son played soccer he was a natural, leading the pack in goals scored and bursting with pride at his accomplishments. Wanting to encourage his love of the game I praised him for his successes. But at start of next season when, pitted against an older age group, he was no longer the star player I became the mom who had to repeatedly venture out onto the field to pick up my sobbing little boy.
By praising the outcome of his hard work and passion instead of the hard work and passion itself I had created a child who wanted to give up when things got hard. Lesson learned! With a few quick changes in the words I use, I once again have a child who adores soccer but this time he’s ok when the game doesn’t go his way. I recently heard another parent praising him for his skills and he politely pointed out that it was because he was working very hard. A true moment of parenting pride.
If you have any questions regarding these concepts or more ideas to practice them, reach out at any time.
Dr. Jen is a Naturopathic Doctor and Children’s mental health specialist. For more information about building emotional wellness and growth mindset or to book a one-on-one appointment, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 519-745-1600.