The way we praise our children has profound and lasting consequences, yet many parents are doing it wrong. (Even the ones who’ve heard of the research I’m about to describe.)
“Straight As again? You’re so smart!”
“Look at that drawing. You’re such a good artist!”
Many parents assume that it’s good to praise children’s abilities because it boosts their confidence and self-esteem, which in turn paves the way to success. However, a growing body of research suggests that praising children for their ability destroys their love of learning, their ability to persist in the face of failure, and their chances for success.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
To understand how praise can have such negative consequences, you need to understand the work of Carol Dweck. A social psychologist from Stanford University, Dweck has spent most of her research career studying mindsets. She discovered that there are two fundamental mindsets that affect the way you view the world. A fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities, like intelligence and athletic ability, are carved in stone and can’t be changed. You’re either smart, or you’re not. You’re either good at sports, or you belong on the sideline. A growth mindset is the belief that your qualities can be cultivated; you can expand your abilities through effort, good strategies, and guidance from others.
The two mindsets affect how people view success and failure. People with a fixed mindset believe that success is due to one’s ability, and failure is due to one’s lack of ability. As a result, people with a fixed mindset are deflated by failure. They shy away from challenges because they don’t want to risk making mistakes and looking bad.
People with a growth mindset attribute failure to a lack of effort or skill – things that can be improved through perseverance. When they fail, they don’t view themselves as failures. They believe that mistakes are just problems to be solved.
As you might expect, mindset has a profound influence on success in school, work, relationships, and many other areas of life.
How Praise Affects Mindset
Praising children’s ability reinforces a fixed mindset. When we praise children's ability after they experience success (by telling them they're smart after getting an A on a test, for example), it send the message that success is due to ability. It also send the unintentional message that failure is due to lack of ability. This causes children to fear failure and give up when things get tough.
In one classic study, Dweck and her colleague, Claudia Mueller, gave fifth graders a set of moderately difficult questions from an IQ test. All of the children were praised for their performance (which was quite good, overall). Some of them were praised for their intelligence: “Wow…that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” Others were praised for their effort: “Wow…that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” As expected, children praised for being smart developed a fixed mindset. When they experienced failure on a second set of very difficult problems, they lost their motivation and did poorly on a third set of easier problems. In contrast, children praised for their effort developed a growth mindset and were persistent in the face of failure. Their motivation and performance didn’t suffer.
How to Foster a Growth Mindset
If praising children’s abilities is a bad idea, what’s a parent to do? Dweck says that we should use process praise. When children succeed, we should praise the process that led to the success:
“I noticed how hard you studied for your English test. It really paid off!”
“You’re finally riding your bike! Way to go! I liked how you picked yourself up after every fall and keep trying until you figured it out.”
“That’s a beautiful painting. I like how you experimented with different colors.”
When children fail, we shouldn’t praise their effort as a consolation prize (“You tried your best!”). Instead, we should encourage them to learn and grow from the experience:
“I know you studied hard for that test. Let’s see if we can find other study strategies that yield better results.”
“You can’t paint a masterpiece on your first try. Keep practicing. Every time you paint, you’re becoming a better artist.”
Failure offers tremendous opportunities for growth. Don’t rob your child of those opportunities. Don’t be afraid of a little constructive criticism.
What about the kids who do well without even trying? Don’t praise them. Instead, encourage them to take on more challenging tasks.
Beware of False Growth Mindset
As the mindset concept gained popularity in parenting and education circles, Dweck noticed that many people have a fundamental misunderstanding of growth mindset. Many people believe that you should praise children’s effort regardless of their performance, but that’s wrong. Praising effort is meaningless when children are not doing well.
In the new edition of her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck says that we should praise the learning process that led to the successful outcome, and tie that process to the outcome. Effort is part of the learning process, but it’s not the only part. We should acknowledge children’s strategies, too. Help them understand how their behavior affected the outcome (e.g., "You tried lot of different ways of balancing the bike and, because you keep trying, you finally found the right way!"). When children succeed, praise the strategy. When they fail, help them find another strategy.
Dweck concludes that the best way for parents to raise successful children is to teach them “to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, seek new strategies, and keep on learning.”
Dweck, C.S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Mueller, C,M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52