Want to know how to raise hard working kids? The ones who don’t give up easily, take pride in their work, and enjoy the learning process. Learn how to instill dedication in your child!
We hear about kids who dutifully check off their chores. They don’t give up at the first sign of struggle and 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 teach dedication and striving for 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?
According to Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, don’t praise for traits like being smart, athletic or “a natural” doesn’t make for hard working kids.
That kind of praise implies that their 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 they face a difficult test, or more challenging opponents? (And trust me, they will.)
They might feel worse about themselves, or question why their talents aren’t getting them through this challenge. They’ll blame external factors like a noisy testing room or difficult weather.
They’ll steer clear of challenges that might question their natural ability. They’ll always choose a test they know they can breeze through and a comfortable path to protect the “smart” label they’d come to rely on so much. And they’ll avoid challenges, even if they can make them learn more.
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 she can change. Success is built on perseverance, strategy and creativity, not a natural talent she supposedly has.
She didn’t ace a test because she’s “smart,” but because she studied hard for the exam. Don’t celebrate the goals she scored, but the new strategies she tried. Praise her for not giving up when things got tough, and for practicing over and over, even when it would’ve been easier to give up.
She’ll see challenge as a good thing, not one to hide from for fear she’ll make mistakes. She’ll know it’s exactly this kind of challenge that will help her even more. And she’ll value the hard work it takes to improve and reach her goals.
As I say in my book, Letters and Numbers:
“Praise your child for working hard, and she’ll look forward to challenges and get a kick out of it. She’ll know solving problems isn’t based on whether she’s cut out for it or not, but on practice and hard work.”
Now that we can see the importance of praising effort, what are the best ways to do so?
1. Don’t praise so much
This might be a harsh tip, but watch how often you praise your child. 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 your child to be able to do.
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2. Praise the process
How do you know if you’re praising effort versus innate traits? Focus on the “before.”
Your child won the game because she’d been practicing the whole week, not because she’s a natural at soccer. She loves drawing because she worked on her picture for several days, not only because she produced a great piece of art.
Don’t praise her for the aftermath only—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 praise she needs to hear. Focus on the things she can control, not on traits she can’t.
3. 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 main 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.
4. Embrace mistakes
Embrace your child’s mistakes as learning tools. Though disappointing, a mistake isn’t something to avoid at all costs.
Otherwise, she’ll shy away from challenges or won’t do good work. At worst, she 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 make mistakes and failures. But it’s part of the process and something to expect, not avoid.
When they do 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?
5. Keep praise “descriptive,” not “evaluative”
The way we praise falls on two types: evaluative and descriptive.
Evaluative praise is based on your judgment—your “evaluation”—of what your child has done. Things like, “Your painting is so beautiful!” or “Good job!” It means well, but it imposes your thoughts and opinions on her and her work.
It also focuses too much on external praise as a way to reinforce and validate her work. It shouldn’t matter what you thought of her painting, only that she enjoyed creating it so much.
But descriptive praise is based on what you see and “describe.” You might say, “Look at that purple in your painting!” or “You cleaned up your mess, and all by yourself, too!”
It focuses on her and her work instead of what you think of it. Describing the colors of a painting or saying she cleaned up her mess state what you see, allowing her to make her own assessment and conclusion. She’s able to draw joy and motivation on her own, and not rely on other people’s opinions.
Praising your child for effort highlights the hard work it takes to succeed, rather than natural talent. It’s a “no excuses” mentality: the work she puts in will likely equal the success she reaches.
Steer clear of praising her for supposed innate traits, and instead focus on effort. Embrace mistakes and all the work it took to get her to where she is. Try not to praise too often, but when you do, keep it descriptive rather than evaluative.
Raising hard working kids starts 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 on raising hard working kids:
- 6 Techniques That Will Help Your Child Love Math
- How to Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
- Teaching Kids to Lose Gracefully
- Characteristics of a Resilient Child
- Why You Shouldn’t Reward Your Kids (And What to Do Instead)
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