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Is Your Praise Sabotaging Your Child’s Success?

“You’re so smart!”

“You’re so talented!”

“You’re so good at that!”

Do any of these sound familiar? Of course they do! It’s how many (if not most) parents in the Western world praise their children to show them love, affection, and encouragement.

But there’s a problem with this type of praise. (And let me reiterate, there’s a problem with this TYPE of praise, not with all praise in general.)

So what’s the problem with praising your child?

According to research from Stanford University by Dr. Carol Dweck, we may be doing them more harm than good by offering this type of praise.

Over years of experiments, Dweck has shown that children develop what she has termed a “fixed mindset” about themselves when they are faced with “person” praise.  What does this mean?  It means when children are praised for their abilities or traits seen as inherent in the person – “you are smart”, “you are beautiful” – they develop a mindset that sees these traits as unchangeable.

Unchangeable. There’s the problem.

“Person” praise gives your child a FIXED mindset.

Kids with a fixed mindset believe that you are stuck with however much intelligence you’re born with. They would agree with this statement: “If you have to work hard, you don’t have ability. If you have ability, things come naturally to you.” When they fail, these kids feel trapped. They start thinking they must not be as talented or smart as everyone’s been telling them. They avoid challenges, fearful that they won’t look smart.

Avoiding challenges and living in fear of looking “stupid” when you’ve been told over and over you’re smart is no way to live. It’s certainly not a path to success and, even worse, it’s definitely not a path to happiness. And isn’t that what we want most for our children? For them to be happy?

Taking it a step further, if this type of praise, “person” praise, doesn’t work so well what about “person” criticism?

Dweck and colleagues have also seen the same effect with criticism, with children who received person criticism to tasks (in this case it was “I’m very disappointed in you”) showing helplessness in later tasks tapping similar abilities relative to children who received other feedback or no feedback at all.  Children, in essence, internalize the failure as being about them and fail to think that they are capable of growth… [this] tells them no matter what they do, they will not succeed, so why try?

Okay, what should you do instead? What type of praise should you give?

Dweck calls it “process” praise.

Process praise is where we offer praise to a child (or adult) based on the effort they have done or how they have approached a problem or situation.  When children are given this type of praise – “I can see you worked really hard!” – they often embrace harder challenges, rising to the task of completing them.   The motivating factor is that they are made aware that their effort pays off.  The children are able to see that their work is what gave them the result, not some innate talent or ability, and thus they realize that more work can equal more gains.

Some examples would be:

“I can tell you’ve been practicing!”

“You did it! It was hard but you kept trying and you did it!”

“You really applied yourself!”

“Process” praise gives your child a GROWTH mindset.

Kids with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be cultivated: the more learning you do, the smarter you become. These kids understand that even geniuses must work hard. When they suffer a setback, they believe they can improve by putting in more time and effort. They value learning over looking smart. They persevere through difficult tasks.

And what happens when we criticize the “process” instead of the “person?”

When criticism is directed at the process – “That way doesn’t work but maybe you could think of another way” – children again rise to the occasion.  They no longer see the failure as being about them but rather about the way they approached the situation or problem and were reinforced with the idea that they can find another way.

When we use process-oriented instead of person-oriented praise and criticism children are more willing to embrace harder challenges and more able to learn from and move through failures. Instead of giving up, they keep the faith that they can and will succeed. All they have to do is keep trying, and/or find another way.

The good news is it’s never too late to change a fixed mindset!

Check out this video by Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, entitled You Can Learn Anything based on Dweck’s work. When you’re done, head over to read his post entitled Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart.

Reese

Reese Leyva is a first-time mom whose countless hours of reading about and researching pregnancy, birth, and gentle/respectful parenting have led her to one inevitable conclusion - moms and babies are amazing! When she's not writing or studying to complete her certification as a Childbirth Educator, she's playing in the dirt with her super cool infant daughter or cooking alongside her nifty artist husband.

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