The power of meaningful praise

January 12, 2015 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

“You did a great job!” you say, excited by your child’s test results. “You’re so smart!”

As parents, we are delighted when our children do something that we believe is wonderful. We want them to know we think they’re amazing – whether it’s in school, on the playing field, in a music lesson or in some other arena where their skills and ability are evident.

But compliments intended to uplift and encourage our children can sometimes backfire.

In fact, research shows that giving children a label such as “smart,” “gifted” or “talented,” may actually cause them to underperform. They view their ability as something they’re born with, rather than as something that can be developed through effort.

In her book, “Mindset: The new psychology of success,” Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck shares insight from her decades of research on achievement and success. Dweck says it’s not just talents and abilities that result in success, but “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”

Dweck says we – and our children – approach goals with either a “fixed” or “growth” mindset.

Children who have a “fixed” mindset believe they are smart or dumb, talented in some area (music, athletics, writing, etc.) or not. On the other hand, children who have a “growth” mindset believe they can develop skills or talents to be/do whatever they want.

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over,” writes Dweck. On the other hand, the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”

Dweck says that emphasizing effort empowers a child and “gives a child a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

So how can we compliment/praise our children in a meaningful way? Look for ways to provide descriptive praise that encourages effort.

For example, compliment the work that went into something. For example, “I am really proud of the effort you put into studying for that test. Whatever the outcome, you know you’ve done your best to prepare.” Complimenting effort can help boost self-esteem and encourage a child to believe in herself.

Other tips for promoting a growth mindset:

  • The brain is like other muscles: it can grow through hard work, determination and lots of practice.
  • Avoid using words such as “smart,” “gifted” or talented,” which implies children were born with set skills and abilities. This approach doesn’t encourage growth and effort.
  • Praise the process. Remind children that effort, hard work and perseverance/practice can help a child reach her true potential.
  • Avoid praising the results.
  • Embrace failures. Children can frequently learn most when they fail (See Why I want my children to fail). Mistakes are part of the learning process, and working through a problem successfully can build a child’s confidence and self-esteem.


Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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