Many parents praise their kids with good intentions. But can praise be harmful? Here’s how to praise kids to encourage their potential.
I was impressed. My 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. The structure was 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 wondered:
Can praise be harmful?
It doesn’t seem like it at first. Any child who hears that 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 causing more harm than good.
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Yep, praise isn’t always good. This shocked me at first, but once I read more about it, the research made sense. Every author I was reading—from Po Bronson to Malcolm Gladwell to Daniel Pink—cited Carol Dweck.
So I went to the source and found a book she wrote called Mindset. Covering many topics—from parenting to business to personal lives—she differentiates between two particular mindsets:
- Fixed mindset: We believe our traits are innate. We’re born with a certain knack and we’re praised for abilities and character traits.
- Growth mindset: We believe through effort and practice, we can achieve our goals. We’re praised for our hard work and we know we can change and try harder.
She writes about praising kids for 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.
Praising inherent traits can hold back kids’ confidence. Let’s learn how that deters them from fulfilling their full potential:
Problem 1: Kids won’t challenge themselves
Praise a kid for being smart, and he’ll love it… until he faces a challenging task. At that point, he’ll slink away, feel not-so-smart, and won’t be so motivated to try and solve it. He’ll shy from challenges because they question his abilities and mark him as “not smart.”
Praise a kid instead for studying hard, and he’ll look forward to challenges and get a kick out of it. He’ll know solving problems isn’t based on whether he’s cut out for it or not but on practice and hard work.
After all, why would someone praised for being smart try and take a difficult test? Anything out of his comfort zone would mark him as dumb. So he stays within his range instead of trying harder.
Problem 2: Kids will equate effort with mediocrity
Let’s say people praised your child all his life for being athletic. “He’s a natural!” everyone says. 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 certain talents—professional athletes, academics, CEOs—stumble on obstacles. And when kids praised with a fixed mindset are encouraged to try and practice—they balk.
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 these kids need to push themselves, to face skills they should work on, they’ll turn the other way. They’ll feel like they’re a level above trying.
Problem 3: Kids will be sensitive to failure
A friend of mine described a little girl she knew who felt terrified of failure. The little girl, age six, grew up with praise, and not surprisingly: She was above average. Those around her showered her with fixed mindset praise, like “You are so smart!” and “I knew you had it in you—you’re a natural!”
These bits of praise worked to bolster her self-esteem… that is, 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 that with effort she can figure it out. Or that some things are hard, even for her.
Kids need to embrace failure. Yes, it sucks 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 just 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. Support your kids and admire their achievements—just do it the right way. A way where you don’t hamper their potential, and instead encourage them.
Praise kids for their effort
Rather than praising them for innate traits, praise them for their hard work. Achievements aren’t made because they have “it” or not, but because of the actions they did. You can say, “Looks like you studied and improved.”
Don’t praise kids all the time
As parents, we seem to praise kids for every little thing. Don’t. Reserve your praise for when you’re glad. Not because you think praise will raise their self-esteem (it won’t) or make them work harder (ditto). It’s not our job to praise them for everything. You can say, “Tell me about your drawing.”
Praise kids for the right reason
How often have you praised your kids for doing something perfectly? Or for getting answers right? Or for being fast? These achievements are great, but not the only values we should promote.
Answering an easy worksheet doesn’t warrant praise. Instead, apologize for wasting his time and promise to find a challenging worksheet tomorrow. You can say, “I like how you tried different strategies.”
Let kids fail
We do our kids a disservice when we save them too often, such as from disappointment or frustration. Why? They won’t know how to do the right thing when their parents save them each time. Let your kids stumble, correct their mistakes, and learn from them.
Explain to kids that the brain is like a muscle
The most direct way to teach kids 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.
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. Even with the best of intentions, we end up shirking their hope to improve or belief that they can change.
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.” What to say instead: “You’re a learner! I love that.”
- “Well, at least you tried!” What to say instead: “That didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better.”
- “Great job! You’re so talented!” What to say instead: “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.” What to say instead: “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.” What to say instead: “I have high standards. I’m holding you to them because I know we can reach them together.”
As parents, our goal is to be both supportive and demanding. To give kids 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.
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 them 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 kids sparingly, and genuinely. Do so when they’ve put in good work or tried a new challenge or didn’t give up even when it was hard. Not just for winning or for scoring perfectly or for 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.
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