How to Praise Your Child for a Growth Mindset

Many parents praise their kids with good intentions, but can doing so be harmful? Here’s how to praise your child for a growth mindset. 

How to Praise Your Child

I was impressed.

My 4 year old had just finished building an intricate structure of wooden blocks. Like any parent, I wanted to keep his spirits high and his ambition from fizzling. In other times, I might have blurted out, “I love it! You’re so creative. Good job!”

After all, anyone who hears that kind of praise would feel elated and his self-esteem would shoot through the roof. He’d think he was creative—a natural.

Thankfully I didn’t. It turns out, researchers have shown that praising kids this way can actually backfire.

How? Take a look at a few problems that come up when we praise kids this way as well as what we should do instead. As one parent said about the article:

“Wow! So many valuable tips and information here. Surprised how I had not come across this site before. But better late than never. Look forward to your newsletters. Thank you.” -Sylvia

3 problems with praising a fixed mindset

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In her book, Mindset, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck differentiates between two particular mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: We believe we attain our goals because we’re born with innate character traits and abilities.
  2. Growth mindset: We believe we attain our goals because of effort, practice and hard work and that we can always change.

She writes about the problems with praising kids for their innate 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 can shrink self-confidence and deter them from their potential:

1. Kids won’t challenge themselves

Praise a child for being smart, and he’ll love it—that is, until he faces a challenging task. At that point, he might slink away, feel not-so-smart, and won’t be so motivated to try and solve it. He might shy from challenges because they question his abilities and make him feel “not smart.”

After all, why would someone who’s praised for being smart try and take a difficult test? Anything out of his comfort zone would make him feel not smart. So, he stays within his range instead of trying harder.

Praise him instead for studying hard and he’ll look forward to challenges and even get a kick out of them. He knows solving problems isn’t based on whether he’s cut out for it or not, but on practice and hard work. And while challenges can still be difficult, he can learn to bounce back quicker.

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2. Kids equate effort with mediocrity

Let’s say a child was praised all her life for being athletic. “She’s a natural!” everyone said. And perhaps it’s true to a point—with little effort, she’s able to conquer physical feats her peers struggle with.

But as we know, not everything is so easy. 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 might turn the other way because they feel like they’re a level above trying.

Learn how to raise a bright child.

How to Raise a Bright Child

3. Kids are sensitive to failure

Imagine a little girl who feels terrified of failure. She grew up with praise because she was above average. People shower her with fixed mindset praise, like “You’re so smart!” and “You’re a natural!”

These bits of praise can work to bolster her self-esteem, but only until she inevitably fails. When faced with a challenge, she crumples and berates herself for not knowing this already. She doesn’t think she can 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 an opportunity to learn. Think about babies who take a step and fall. Down the line, they’ll improve and take two steps before falling. And so forth until they learn how to walk.

Mistakes are one of the best ways to learn. A perfect score done in 10 seconds isn’t an achievement—it means the activity or homework may have been too easy.

How to Teach Kids to Embrace Mistakes

How to praise your child for a growth mindset

Don’t worry: Not all praise is bad. You can (and should) support your child and admire her achievements—just do it in a way that doesn’t hamper her potential or makes her feel like she’s stuck. In other words, praise for a growth mindset. Here’s how:

1. Praise 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!” or “I like how you tried different strategies.”

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 notable, but they shouldn’t be the only values you promote.

After all, answering an easy worksheet doesn’t warrant compliments. Instead, promise to find a challenging worksheet tomorrow.

2. Don’t praise all the time

As parents, we praise kids for every little thing. Don’t. Reserve your praise for when you’re genuinely glad.

Avoid praising your child all the time because you think it can 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 from disappointment or frustration. They won’t know how to recover from these experiences or will expect others to bail them out 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 exercise to improve her body, so too does the brain improve the more she uses it.

4. Praise what your child can control

To help your child feel even more empowered by her efforts, 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. But if you praise her for her choices and actions, she knows she can do something about it.

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 measure herself against her peers. That she can only be great when others are not.

Instead of praising her in comparison to others, focus 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.

Expert tip

Praise her against herself. Talk about how her drawings have improved since just a few months ago.


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 might be mediocre. And they might rely more and more on others’ opinions rather than their own internal joy.

Instead, praise and acknowledge them sparingly yet genuinely. Do so when they tried a new challenge or didn’t give up when it was hard, not just for winning or completing a task quickly.

Above all, let them know that practice and hard work can change anything. Their brains are 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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  1. Wow! So many valuable tips and information here. Surprised how I had not come across this site before. But better late than never. Look forward to your newsletters.
    Thank you Nina.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Sylvia! I’m glad the tips help.