Children repeatedly praised for their inherent intelligence, in contrast to praise for their effort or the use of good strategies, are at risk for negative consequences of that praise. If your children feel that it is their intelligence you admire, they may focus on things that make them appear “look smart” especially grades.
In research by Carol Dweck and others, children who perceive their success as a result of the intelligence with which they were born, and not under their control, are more prone to what she called a fixed mindset. They believe that their abilities are fixed and not changeable by effort. This becomes problematic when they avoid opportunities to challenge themselves academically because they fear risking a lower grade. When they do perceive an assignment to be very hard they may lose confidence and give up because they do not believe their success can be changed by effort. If a test seems very challenging, and they can fear that they may not get a high grade, they may lose confidence and that can impair their test performance.
Children who are praised for grades, points scored in athletic events, or blue ribbons, risk becoming perfectionists who choose not to participate if they are not sure they can be the best. If their identities are so connected to outcome, they can become fearful of disappointing you or get a lower grade and not living up to your high expectations.
The way you give praise strongly influences your child’s self-image regarding their intelligence, self-worth, and willingness to take on challenges. Instead of praising their products, focus on praise for their progress, effort, attitude, strategic planning, organization, and prioritizing of work or practice over the more immediate gratification, such as their choice to practice or review instead of playing video games or checking Facebook. This praise promotes their willingness to persevere and take on challenge.
Praise for effort: Praise that explicitly acknowledges the connection between the your children’s additional effort and their specific achievement, rather than praise for intelligence, increases their willingness to continue to apply effort and persevere through setbacks.
Specificity: It is not the quantity of praise your offer, but the quality. The most effective praise is credible, specific and genuine and related to factors within your child’s control.
Be specific about the particulars of what it was that your child did that merit recognition. Instead of “Your painting is pretty” a comment such as, “You blended colors well to show that the sun was setting.”
Avoid competitive praise: It is great to acknowledge your children’s improvement by comparing their progress to their previous results. “You seem to understand least common denominators much better now, and it shows in the way you can add fractions.”
Avoid sarcastic or critical praise that negates their previous work such as, “This is such a careful, complete, and detailed report on spiders. Why didn’t you make your last report about the explorers this good?” If you’d like to help your child recognize the successful strategies they used on the spider report you can ask, “What strategies did you use to write such a complete and carefully illustrated report?”
Sincerity: Don’t praise your children for mediocre effort and work. Children pick up on insincere praise and know when they haven’t done their best. Children should not feel that you are lowering your standards to praise their work. It is better to wait for authentic success in effort or improvement than to give superficial praise for your children’s mediocre work.
Praise goals, but don’t make them contracts: If your child is enthusiastic and tells you her plans to spend an extra 15 minutes each night beyond what the teacher assigns, it is great to be supportive. You can even make comments that show you believe in her potential to achieve that goal such as, “I’m glad you enjoy reading enough to want to do more. Would you like me to take you to the library tomorrow.” If some time goes by and your child does to stick to that goal, don’t make that choice an object of criticism or cause her to regret that she shared it with you, or that you love her any less for not accomplishing that goal. Holding your tongue will promote her desire to continue to have goals and share her future dreams with you.
Praise that doesn’t embarrass modest children: Some children are uncomfortable with praise. You can make supportive comments that acknowledge their progress without using specific words of praise. “I notice that you are doing homework before watching television. How does it feel to finish your work earlier?”
Praise that is specific, sincere, and related to effort and progress will set your children on the path of life long learners who will enjoy challenges – and even seek them out. Their perspectives will be the belief that their effort and perseverance are their keys to success. These children will take on their futures with the mindset needed to take the risks of being creative innovators and take on the work needed to achieve their goals.