Many parents praise their kids with good intentions, but did you know praise can also hinder their potential? Learn how to praise your child for a growth mindset. Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase.
I was impressed.
My then-four-year-old had just finished building an intricate structure of wooden blocks. This was the stuff I didn’t even know he could do. Each block was meticulously placed and symmetrical, and it looked like something a budding architect would make.
I was so proud.
Like any parent, I wanted to keep his spirits high, his ambition from fizzling. And in other times, I might have blurted out, “I love it! You’re so creative. Good job!”
Thankfully I didn’t. Because I’ve since learned that over-praising can actually be bad.
It doesn’t seem like it at first. Any child who hears that kind praise would feel elated. Her self-esteem would shoot through the roof, and she’d think she was creative—a natural.
But when we praise our kids this way, we’re doing them more of a disservice.
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3 problems with over-praising your child
So, I went to the source and found a book she wrote called Mindset. Covering many topics, from parenting to business, she differentiates between two particular mindsets:
- Fixed mindset: This is when we believe our traits are innate. That we’re born with a certain knack, and we’re praised for abilities and character traits.
- Growth mindset: This is when we believe that we achieve our goals through effort and practice. We’re praised for our hard work and we know we can always change and try harder.
She writes about the problems with praising kids for their inherent traits and raising them with a fixed mindset:
“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.”
Let’s learn how praising with a fixed mindset shrinks their confidence and deters them from their potential:
Problem 1: Kids won’t challenge themselves
Praise a child for being smart, and she’ll love it—that is, until she faces a challenging task. At that point, she’ll slink away, feel not-so-smart, and won’t be so motivated to try and solve it. She’ll shy from challenges because they question her abilities and make her feel “not smart.”
After all, why would someone who’s praised for being smart try and take a difficult test? Anything out of her comfort zone would make her feel stupid. So, she stays within her range instead of trying harder.
Praise her instead for studying hard, and she’ll look forward to challenges and get a kick out of them. She’ll know solving problems isn’t based on whether she’s cut out for it or not, but on practice and hard work.
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Problem 2: Kids will equate effort with mediocrity
Let’s say a child was praised all his life for being athletic. “He’s a natural!” everyone said. And perhaps it’s true—with little effort, he’s able to conquer physical feats his peers struggle with.
But as we know, not everything is so easy for us. Even adults with a knack for talent—professional athletes, academics, CEOs—stumble on obstacles. But those who grew up with a fixed mindset balk when they’re encouraged to try and practice.
In their minds, trying means they’re just like all the rest. If you were a natural, why would you have to try?
Any time they need to push themselves and face skills they should work on, they’ll turn the other way, feeling like they’re a level above trying.
Problem 3: Kids will be sensitive to failure
A friend of mine described a six-year-old girl she knew who felt terrified of failure. She grew up with praise, and not surprisingly: She was above average. Those around her showered her with fixed mindset praise, like “You’re so smart!” and “I knew you had it in you—you’re a natural!”
These bits of praise worked to bolster her self-esteem, but only until she failed. When faced with a challenge, she crumpled. In tears, she would berate herself for not knowing this already. She didn’t think she could figure it out if she tried, or that some things are hard, even for her.
Kids need to embrace failure. Yes, it feels horrible to lose, to stumble on a problem, or to not know the answer. But failure is also… cool. Kids learn through failure. Babies take a step, then fall. Down the line, they’ll improve and take two steps before falling. And so forth until they learn how to walk.
I tell my son mistakes are good and that’s one of the ways he learns. And a perfect score done in 10 seconds isn’t an achievement. It means the worksheet was boring, a waste of time and too easy.
How to praise kids the right way
Don’t worry: Praise isn’t all bad. You can—and should—support your child and admire her achievements—just do it the right way. A way where you don’t hamper their potential, and instead encourage her.
1. Praise your child for effort
Rather than praising your child for innate traits, praise her for her hard work. Achievements aren’t made because she has “it” or not, but because of the actions she did. You can say, “Looks like you studied and improved!”
Avoid praising her for values that don’t serve her well in the long run. For instance, do you praise her for doing something perfectly or for being the fastest? These achievements are great, but they shouldn’t be the only values you promote.
After all, answering an easy worksheet doesn’t warrant praise. Instead, promise to find a challenging worksheet tomorrow. If she did a good job, you can say, “I like how you tried different strategies.”
2. Don’t praise your child all the time
As parents, we seem to praise kids for every little thing. Don’t. Reserve your praise for when you’re genuinely glad.
Avoid praising your child because you think it’ll raise her self-esteem (it won’t) or make her work harder (ditto). It’s not your job to praise her for everything. If you feel compelled to shower her with praise, you can instead say, “Tell me about your drawing!”
3. Let your child fail
We do our kids a disservice when we save them too often, such as from disappointment or frustration. When we do, they won’t know how to do the right thing when we save them each time. Let your child stumble, correct her mistakes, and learn from them.
The most direct way to teach her about the power of practice and hard work is to explain that the brain is like a muscle. Just as someone would work out to improve her body, so too does the brain improve the more we use it.
4. Praise what your child can control
To help your child feel even more empowered by her abilities, praise her for what she can control, not what she can’t.
Yes, achievements and even luck feel good, but if that’s all you focus on, she’s at the mercy of her circumstances, not what she can do.
For instance, she may not be able to control whether she wins the basketball game, but she can certainly decide how many free throws she’ll practice.
5. Don’t praise by comparison
We all love it when our kids are at the top of their class. But praising your child by comparing her to others sets her up to always measure herself against her peers. That she can only be great when others are not.
Instead of praising her in comparison to others, focus more on what she does on her own. Praise her for her love of learning or how well she listens to the teacher. This type of praise doesn’t rely on how she compares to her friends.
5 phrases to avoid if you want to raise a growth mindset
We’ve now learned the benefits of praising effort to encourage children’s potential.
As parents, our goal is to be both supportive and demanding. To give them the resources and encouragement they need with the high standards that will help them reach those goals. What we say can make a difference in how they see themselves.
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth lists five phrases of praise to avoid, and what to say instead:
|“You’re a natural! I love that.”||“You’re a learner! I love that.”|
|“Well, at least you tried!”||“That didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better.”|
|“Great job! You’re so talented!”||“Great job! What’s one thing that could have been even better?”|
|“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.”||“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.”|
|“Maybe this just isn’t your strength. Don’t worry—you have other things to contribute.”||“I have high standards. I’m holding you to them because I know we can reach them together.”|
I still struggle with praising, particularly with my habit of saying “Good job!” without even thinking. Or I’ll say, “That’s beautiful!” or “I love it” more than I ought to. I’ve managed to curb saying labels like “You’re so smart,” at least.
Because praising all the time and for the wrong reasons can send the wrong message.
Praising kids for innate skills makes them assume their talents are unchangeable—that they either have it or not. They might shy away from challenges, fearful that they’ll be mediocre. And they’ll rely more and more on others’ opinions rather than their own internal joy.
Instead, praise and acknowledge them sparingly, and genuinely. Do so when they’ve put in good work. tried a new challenge, or didn’t give up even when it was hard. Not just for winning, scoring perfectly, or completing the task quickly.
Above all, let them know that practice and hard work can change anything. Their brains are like muscles that, with enough flexing, means they can go from a C to an A. From “I’m not artistic” to drawing beyond expectations. And from a fear of challenges to a desire for more.
Get more tips:
- 5 Remarkable Ways to Encourage Deliberate Practice
- 4 Easy Ideas to Nurture Your Child’s Creativity
- Warning: 5 Things You Tell Your Kids but Probably Shouldn’t
- How to Teach Your Child the Value of a Job Well Done
- Here’s How to Address Your Child’s Failures
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