Want to know how to raise hard working kids? Kids who don’t give up easily, take pride in their work, and enjoy the learning process. It’s easier than you think!
We hear about kids who dutifully check off their chores. They don’t give up at the first sign of struggle. They practice over and over until they feel competent. They even like learning.
We can raise hard working kids by a simple change in how we speak to our children. Because if you’re like me, you may be making a crucial mistake you don’t even realize you’re doing. (I sure didn’t until I learned this secret.)
You see, I thought the way to encourage hard work and excellence is to praise my kids and everything they do. From “Good job!” to “You’re so smart!” I figured this was the way to boost their self-esteem and encourage them to work hard.
Except I learned it doesn’t exactly work that way. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The secret to raising hard working kids
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So, if praising kids for doing a good job or making them feel smart doesn’t cut it, what will?
First, let’s talk about the kinds of praise that doesn’t work. Praising them for traits like being smart, athletic or a natural doesn’t make for hard working kids. Why?
We imply that our children’s accomplishments are due to innate traits they’re born with. They either have it or they don’t. They’re smart, so of course they’d get an A on a test. They’re athletic, so of course they’d score the most goals in a soccer game.
But what happens when that child comes across a difficult test, or challenging opponents? And trust me, they will.
They might feel worse about themselves. Question why their talents aren’t getting them through this challenge. Blame external factors like a noisy testing room or difficult weather.
And they’ll steer clear of challenges that might question their natural ability. Now that child will always choose a test she knows she can breeze through. She’ll avoid challenging ones that can make her learn more and work harder.
She’ll always choose the comfortable path to protect the smart label she has come to rely on so much.
For more on the effect of praise, I encourage you to pick up Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. I refer to it all the time throughout the blog for a reason!
Why effort matters
Back to effort. How is it then that praising effort instead of innate traits works? Praising your child’s effort focuses on things your child can change. Success is possible because of effort, perseverance, strategy and creativity. Not a natural talent she supposedly has.
A child who aced a test did so not because she’s smart, but because she studied hard for the exam. We don’t celebrate all the goals she scored but the new strategies she tried. And we praise her for not giving up when things got tough, and for trying over and over leading up to the big day.
Kids praised for effort will see challenge as a good thing, not one to hide from for fear they’ll make mistakes. They know it’s exactly this kind of challenge that will help them even more. And they value the hard work it takes to improve and reach their goals.
How to praise kids
Now that we can see what a huge difference praising our kids can make, what are the best ways to do so?
Don’t praise so much
This might be a harsh tip, but watch how often you praise your kids. Sometimes we think our kids will stop studying or behaving well if we don’t praise them often enough or for every little thing.
But kids don’t need as much praise as we think they do. Save heartfelt praise for when it matters, not for doing something you expect them to be able to do.
Praise what it took to get there
How do you know if you’re praising effort versus innate traits? Focus on the “before.”
A child won the game because she’d been practicing the whole week, not because she’s a natural at soccer. Or you could tell she loves drawing because she worked on her picture for several days.
Don’t just praise kids for the aftermath—the games won or the A’s on the tests. Instead, praise her for what it took to get her there. The perseverance to not give up when she stumbled on a jigsaw puzzle. The new strategy she found to dribble a soccer ball. The hours it took to get the train tracks put together just right.
These are the types of skills worthy of praise your child needs to hear. Focus on the things she can control, not on traits she can’t.
Don’t just praise for winning
Let’s say your child was shooting basketball hoops. Do you only praise her when she makes a shot?
It’s easy to do this, and often natural. After all, the point of the game is to make shots into the basket. So when it happens, it warrants praise all around.
But don’t forget to praise for effort as well. Let’s say you notice she dribbled the ball before making a shot. Point that out, even if she didn’t get the ball in the hoop. Or let’s say she still can’t get any shots after so many tries—praise her for not giving up.
Wins and accomplishments are worthy of praise. But so are effort, strategy, perseverance and trying new things.
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Embrace your child’s mistakes as learning tools. Mistakes are inevitable. Though disappointing, a mistake isn’t something to avoid at all costs.
Otherwise, kids shy away from challenges or don’t do good work. At worst, kids might resort to cheating or winning by any means necessary.
Instead, embrace mistakes as inevitable and educational. No one likes to fail (I surely don’t). It doesn’t feel good to keep trying only to keep making mistakes and failures. But it’s part of the process and something to expect, not avoid.
When mistakes happen, point them out and see what she can learn from it. What might she do differently to avoid that mistake again? What did the mistake reveal that might help her reach her goal?
Keep praise “descriptive,” not “evaluative”
The way we praise falls on two types: evaluative and descriptive.
Evaluative praise is based on our judgment—evaluation—of what our kids have done. Things like, “Your painting is so beautiful!” or “Good job!” We mean well, but we also impose our thoughts and opinions on our kids and their work.
But descriptive praise is based on what we see and describe. You might say, “Look at all that purple in your painting!” or “You cleaned up your mess, and all by yourself, too!”
Avoid evaluative praise and instead describe what you see in your child’s work. Evaluative praise focuses too much on external praise as a way to reinforce and validate her work. It shouldn’t matter what we think of their painting, only that she enjoyed working on it so much.
We can still praise kids using descriptive praise. This brings the focus back on your child and her work instead of what we think of it. Describing the colors of a painting or reiterating that she cleaned up her mess state what you see.
Descriptive praise doesn’t project judgment. It allows your child to make her own assessment and conclusion. And she’s able to draw joy and motivation all on her own, and not on other people.
Praising kids for effort highlights the hard work it takes to succeed, rather than natural talent. It’s a “no excuses” mentality: the work they put in will likely equal the success they reach.
Steer clear of praising kids for supposed innate traits and instead focus on effort. Embrace mistakes and all the work it took to get your child to where she is. Try not to praise often, but when you do, keep it descriptive rather than evaluative.
Raising hard working kids start with the way we communicate with them on the things we value. Through hard work, they can meet their goals, embrace mistakes and learn to love the process.
Get more tips:
- 6 Traits You Can Teach to Guide Kids to Success
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- Teaching Resilience and Perseverance: How to Raise Kids with Grit
- Why You Shouldn’t Reward Your Kids (And What to Do Instead)
- The Benefits of Struggle: You Don’t Always Have to Save Your Kids
Your turn: Do you find you praise your kids for innate talents? How can you change your compliments from evaluative to descriptive?
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