The “Smart” Way to Praise Children

When it comes to school, everything that matters depends upon a student’s mindset. Students with a fixed mindset believe that they prove their intelligence by doing flawless work, while students with a growth mindset equate intelligence with knowing how to confront a challenge

Lisa Damour, Clinical Psychologist and Writer

We all know that praise is a very powerful thing. It’s a tool we often use to support and motivate our children. Although, very well-intentioned, the byproduct could potentially have negative consequences. Often we praise our children for their intelligence or their ability by saying, “you’re so smart” or “you’re so good”. By habitually doing this, it could contribute to a fixed mindset within our children. This type of mindset often lends a hand to children becoming fixed on how “good” or “bad” they are at something and inhibits their thinking that they can improve their intelligence.

Carol Dweck, psychologist and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, emphasizes that we should praise our children based on their effort and not their intelligence. When we praise our children based on their effort, we help them understand that it’s their effort, aligned with the right actions and behaviors, that help them develop skills and overcome obstacles.

One thing to keep in mind is when Dweck speaks about effort, she’s talking about effective effort. That word often seems to get lost. There is a difference between effort and effective effort and they are not equal. Effective effort is the kind that leads to growth and new learning, whereas, ineffective effort is when children put in unfocused energy. Praising the wrong type of effort can be damaging.

In a landmark series of experiments on American 5th graders, researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children behaved very differently depending on the type of praise they received. Research showed that children who were praised for their effort were more open to accepting new challenges and learning new strategies, whereas, by contrast, children that were praised for their intelligence tended to avoid challenges, often preferred easy tasks, and gave up after a failure.

Praising for Intelligence

Praising students’ intelligence leads to a short burst of pride followed by a long string of negative consequences

Carol Dweck

When we praise for intelligence we are sending our children a message that we are proud of their flawless work. This often leads to children feeling fearful of making mistakes, avoiding difficult tasks, and cheating. By praising children for their intelligence, we are teaching them that their success is due to their intelligence. When difficult challenges later appear, they are more likely to attribute their challenges/failures to a lack of intelligence.

Praising for Effective Effort

By contrast, when praising students for their effective effort, we are letting our children know that by continuing to practice good behaviors and actions, they can continue to grow and get better. This promotes a growth mindset. This type of praise fosters motivation, collaboration, increased effort, willingness to try and take on new challenges, and great self-confidence.

Dweck’s research on this topic has hit home for Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist and writer, who has written numerous academic papers, chapters, and two New York Times best-selling books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.

Just like many parents, Damour wants to encourage her children to thrive and take chances by stepping out of their comfort zone, but she also wants to make sure she is not applying undue pressure on her children and asking for more than is fair. Promoting a growth mindset by praising effective effort has helped her find a good balance.

This coming December, we will be having Lisa Damour speak to The Willows community and our extended Los Angeles community as part of our Speaker Series, which will be open and free to the public.

For more resources on this topic, feel free to check out these videos by Carol Dweck and Lisa Damour.

References:

Mueller CM and Dweck CS. 1998. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal for Personality and Social Psychology 75(1): 33-52

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