We’ve all heard parents exclaiming, “How clever you are!” at the slightest illegible scribble or mispronounced syllable their child produces. In fact one study showed 85% of parents believe that it is important to praise children for their intelligence, tell them they are smart. In essence you want to be an angel on their shoulder reminding them they have what it takes and that they can do whatever it is that they are tackling. You never give a second thought to praising kids to boost their self-esteem. However, self-esteem isn’t about telling kids that everything they do is terrific, a real sense of self-worth is based on the skills they build for themselves and the true accomplishments they feel they’ve made. So it is internally and not externally driven. However, many parents have the tendency to build up their kids with false or exaggerated statements, such as: “Wow, you are amazing!” You hear and see these vacant platitudes everywhere. “You can do anything.” “You are amazing” “You deserve it.” We thought we were building self-esteem with these cheerleading praises. In fact the reverse is found to be true: wrong praise makes you lose self-esteem, curiosity, motivation and drive – the essence of what builds academic achievement!
Every so often a truly groundbreaking idea comes along – one of them is “mindsets.” This theory has been developed and scrutinously researched by Dr. Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. It explains: why brains and talent do not equal success, in fact it can stand in the way of success; why praising brains and talent does NOT foster self-esteem and accomplishment but jeopardizes them; and how using the correct praise can raise grades and productivity.
When you enter a mindset world you enter a dichotic world one of “fixed traits” and “growth traits”. In the “fixed” world, success is about proving you are smart and talented, validating yourself. In the “growth” world it is about stretching yourself to learn something new, developing yourself, reaching further even if you fail at it. In the fixed world, failure is about not achieving something, i.e. having a setback, getting a bad grade or losing a tournament. This failure leads you to believe that you are not smart or talented. In the growth world, failure is when you are not striving further than your comfort zone, when you are not growing, not reaching out for the things you value, not fulfilling your potential. In the fixed world, effort is a bad thing. If you have to make an effort, it implies that you are not smart or talented. If you were smart or talented surely you wouldn’t need effort. In the growth world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.
These findings are especially important in education and how we, as a culture, assess intelligence. In a study of hundreds of students, Dweck and her colleagues gave each of them ten fairly challenging problems from a nonverbal IQ test, then praised the students for their performance. Most had done pretty well, but they were offered two types of praise. Some students were told, “Wow, you got [X many] right; that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this (“ability” praise).” While others were told, “Wow, you got [X many] right; that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard (“effort” praise).” In other words, some were praised for ability and others for effort. The findings are jarring. The “ability praise” pushed students into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it. When given a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent. In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90% of them wanted a challenging new task that they could learn from.
The most interesting part is what happened next. When Dweck and her colleagues gave the students a subsequent set of harder problems, on which the students didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the ability-praised kids thought they weren’t smart or gifted after all. If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient. But for the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect. Perhaps most importantly, the two mindsets also impacted the kids’ level of enjoyment — everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions, which most kids got right. However, as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised kids no longer had any fun, did worse on their performance and became discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset. The effort-praised kids not only still enjoyed the harder problems but also had significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder.
An unsettling finding came after the questions were completed. The researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying their experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. The most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful, especially when you are talented, and so they lie them away. What is so alarming is that these children started lying simply because they were told they were smart. These children experience a lot of stress because they feel that they are on display all the time and that they have to be smart, accomplished and successful. This stress comes from a fixed mindset, not a growth mindset. A growth mindset says: focus on the learning and the enjoyment of it.
We now know we can change this and we can change it through praise. However, you might wonder, “when does this all start? At what age do our children become subconsciously divided into a mindset dichotomy?” Research shows that mindsets are formed very early in life. When four-year-olds were offered a choice of redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one, these young children conformed to the characteristics of one of the two mindsets. Those with a “fixed” mindset stayed on the safe side, choosing the easier puzzles; those with the “growth” mindset were perplexed by the first choice. Why would anyone want to do the same puzzle over and over if they weren’t learning anything new? In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to make sure they succeeded, whereas the growth-mindset ones wanted to stretch themselves, for their definition of success was about becoming smarter.
What it all comes down to is that a mindset is an interpretative process that tells us what is going on around us. In the fixed mindset, that process is scored by an internal monologue of constant judging and evaluation, using every piece of information as evidence either for or against such assessments. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, the internal monologue is not one of judgment but one of voracious appetite for learning, constantly seeking out the kind of input that can be metabolized into learning and constructive action.
However, effective praise comes with a caveat. When you praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually subdue their motivation. Overpraising is counter effective and one must look out for artificial praise as well! So here are the dos and don’ts of praising!
- Don’t give phony praise! Children know instinctively when they did well, achieved or performed well. When a kid is upset because he missed a goal in football, and he is met with praise along the lines of, “Wow, you played really well,” it is not going to make him feel better. Children know instinctively when they have or haven’t done something well. If we globally praise them and tell them how well they have done, how bright they are or how wonderful something is that they have created and they know instinctively that it isn’t true, then it is meaningless to them and ineffective. Do give realistic praise: “Yes you missed those goals, however, I saw how well you passed to your team mates during the game and gave them an opportunity to score for your team!”
- Don’t overpraise! When you praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually reduce their motivation. Over time, even when praise is sincere they will automatically dismiss it. For instance, in China, praise is rarely given. As a result, people are likely to infer that praise is insincere or patronizing. In addition, Chinese people are more inclined to view intellectual achievements as a product of effort. In other words, it is not necessary to always praise. Sometimes kids don’t’ need it, you can see the satisfaction on their face when they have achieved something they were striving for, they don’t need the external praise, let them ravel in that satisfaction they naturally feel.
- Don’t praise achievement that comes easy:Research shows that when children find certain things easy and are constantly praised for how well they do it, they lose interest in that area. When children do something quickly and perfectly, or get an easy A in school, it would not be effective for parents to tell the children how great they are. Otherwise, the children will equate being smart with quick and easy success, and they will become afraid of challenges. Do instead praise for effort and persistence: “I can see you’ve been practicing” and “Your hard work has really paid off.” Parents should, whenever possible, show pleasure over their children’s learning and improvement.
- Don’t praise the person (ability praise): Don’t praise the ability of the child with statements such as: “You are wonderful”, “You are so clever.” Do be more specific and content oriented: “You did a great job with those math problems.” Praise the strategies: “You found a really good way to do it.” Be specific. It takes more time because we have to spend more time observing what the child has done.
- Don’t use social comparison praise: This teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal. No one can win all the time and, with comparison praise, when they lose, they lose interest and give up – they become poor losers. Do encourage kids to focus on mastering skills, comparing themselves to their goals or previous outcomes—not on comparing themselves to others.
Here is the good news. We can change our mindsets at any point, and we have the power to change the mindsets of our children too! It’s never too late to change your mindset. Mindsets are beliefs and beliefs can be changed. There is more and more new scientific evidence in support of the growth mindset. Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience shows that fundamental parts of intelligence can be developed and that the brain has an amazing capacity to learn and form new connections throughout life. Our brain is a muscle which gets stronger the more we use it, constantly forming new connections as we learn and work hard. Much new research from psychology is showing that genius and great creative contributions grow out of passion and dedication. They do not simply come from gifts we are born with.
We as parents should not shield our children from challenges, mistakes and struggles. Instead, we should teach our children to love challenges. Parents can say things like: “This is hard. What fun!” or “This is too easy. It’s no fun.” Teach your children to embrace mistakes: “Oh, here’s an interesting mistake. What should we do next?” Teach them to love effort: “That was a fantastic struggle. You really stuck to it and made great progress” or “This will take a lot of effort—let’s go for it!”
So next time you as a parent think or say these words, or hear your child say these words: “I can’t do this,” simply add one little word “yet”. “I can’t do this…yet!”
About the Author:
Laurence van Hanswijck de Jonge, MSc, PhD, is a Developmental Neuropsychologist and Coach who provides educational and neuropsychological assessments for English speaking children between the ages of 3 and 18. Her practice is rooted in Positive Psychology and her belief in the importance of letting our children flourish through building on their innate strengths. She is certified by the University of Pennsylvania, USA, to run the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy based resilience building programme for children. She is also a CogMed coach, an evidence-based Working Memory Training program (computer-based) which sustainably improves attention by training working memory.