Most parents think of giving any type of praise as an instant motivation boost. But that’s not always the case when it comes to children.
In fact, several studies have found that when teachers give feedback to students, they convey messages that affect the students’ opinions of themselves and how capable — or incapable — they are of academic achievement.
And as a child psychologist, I’ve found that certain types of praise can do more harm than good to a child’s independence, learning drive, self-confidence and resilience.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University, has been studying the impact of praise on children for decades.
In her research, she identified two core mindsets — or beliefs — about one’s own traits. These mindsets shape how people approach challenges:
- Fixed mindset: The belief that one’s abilities are carved in stone and predetermined at birth.
- Growth mindset: The belief that one’s skills and qualities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance.
People with a fixed mindset, she found, tend to ignore feedback, give up easily and measure success by comparing themselves to others. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are more likely to embrace challenges and make self-to-self comparisons.
By praising the process (“I love how you were very thoughtful about the colors you chose!”), and not the outcome (“The colors in your drawing are beautiful! You’ve got a good eye.”), is what helps children develop a growth mindset, according to Dweck.
When parents praise the outcome, it holds kids back from developing resilience, confidence and a desire to learn new things.
Imagine two kids on a track team. The first kid is a passionate runner, while the second is less athletic. The kid who loves running exerts minimal effort at practice and still wins first place in almost every track meet. The second kid pushes himself, but is discouraged by the fact that he hasn’t had a win.
To praise the process, the parent of the natural runner should acknowledge her skill without providing excessive celebration or praise. This will help her feel supported without suggesting that her innate ability is the primary factor in determining her success.
The parents of the less athletic child should praise him for his hard work and perseverance. This helps him maintain his self-esteem and stay motivated to succeed.
To further support your child’s development of a growth mindset, move your sole focus away from their accomplishments and steer the same level of attention towards their imperfections.
Encourage them to recognize, accept and overcome their “weaknesses.” Remind them that they have the tools and support to grow in the ways that they want to.
Let’s say your child failed his math test twice in a row. Instead of responding with “well, this is disappointing” or “you’re not studying hard enough,” react to his failure as though it’s something that can enhance his learning.
Talk through questions like: “What is this teaching us?” “What should we do next?” “Maybe we can talk to your teacher about how you can learn this better?” This way, your child can come to understand that abilities and skills are not limited; They can be cultivated, and doing so can be a fruitful and wonderful experience.
Children who value learning and effort know how to make and sustain a commitment to their goals. They are not afraid to work hard, and they know that meaningful tasks involve setbacks. These are the lessons that will serve them well in life.
Francyne Zeltser is a child psychologist, adjunct professor and mother of two. She promotes a supportive, problem-solving approach where her patients learn adaptive strategies to manage challenges and work toward achieving both short-term and long-term goals. Her work has been featured in NY Metro Parents and Parents.com.
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