Is too much praise ruining your child’s success?

girl with a trophy

Let’s lay out a scenario. You decide as a parent that you will build your child’s self-esteem, no matter what, because they will need great self-esteem to stand up for themselves and to succeed in this oft-times challenging world.

From the moment your child starts walking and talking, you let them know they are winners! “You were the best today in karate” even though they may be the child that is behind on all of the moves. “I don’t know what the dance teacher was talking about; you danced better than the other girls.”  Your child’s confidence grows and they believe you…they are the best in the activities they get involved in. They are the smartest in preschool and then in elementary school. Life is good!

Then a strange thing happens. As soon as new activities get hard, your child won’t step up to the challenge. They bulk and choose the simple road, choosing an easy activity or a sport they have always played over a harder one or something new. They read simple books instead of trying a story that is at their grade level. They don’t “like” games or activities that are hard or challenging, calling these things “boring.” They seem to be playing it safe.

What in the world happened to the winning spirit you have infused in this child?

In the book Mindset, (2008 by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.), she explains in simple terms what has happened.

She talks about two mindsets that we can have. The first is called a Fixed Mindset. In this one, we believe (even as young children) that our talents or our traits are set. That our talents don’t change. We are successful because people have told us we are successful and we seem to have a few talents we just were born with.  We become caught up in success and failure situations to validate ourselves. Working harder wouldn’t matter to us since we believe that our talents are not developed. We are just lucky enough to have them.

The second mindset is called Growth Mindset. In this mindset the individual is focused on stretching him or herself to learn something new, to improve. Effort is a good thing. There is no judgment after each activity of success or failure; just an assessment of what could be done next to improve upon the last results.

Numerous studies in Dr. Dweck’s book looked at children and adolescents who were given the same task, but they were praised differently.  An experiment was done with answering questions. One part of the group was praised for being smart and getting a ceratin number of problems right and the second group was praised for their effort and how hard they had worked on the problems. When the examiners offered harder, more challenging problems to the same participants, the “smart” group refused to do any more problems for fear harder questions would make them seem less smart – a failure in their eyes. 90% of the “effort” group asked for as many new problems as possible because they thrive on learning how to get better, on earning their successes. One more astonishing fact came from this study. The children were all asked to write down their scores for other school students to see what it would be like to go through the 10 questions they had just completed. 40% of the group that were praised for their ability, and not their effort, lied about the scores they achieved, because in the Fixed Mindset, imperfections are shameful.

So, with those two mindsets established, how are we to praise our children without driving them into the Fixed Mindset group? How do we get them to stop thinking in the black and white terms of “I have to win or be the best otherwise I have lost?” How do we shift to a Growth Mindset?

  • Children know when they are being falsely praised. Sure, they will take the praise and run with it but, in the end it’s hollow.
  • Start thinking of how you as a parent can change your statements to reward effort. Let your child hear you talking about how other people tried and failed and then succeeded, not because they were smart, but because they worked hard to change, improve and to stretch themselves.
  • Begin praising the effort in your child’s day, whether emotional effort, (“I know that was a hard thing to do but your apology was very good.”) or physical effort (“When you went after that ball today in the game, that was great hustle. Soon, you’ll be able to catch that player.”)
  • Make your statements to your child non-judgmental. Don’t give opinions about their traits or talents but instead, talk about their development and how exciting that is.
  • Don’t label your children! “This one is the artist and this one is our runner.” Try, “He really worked hard on a drawing yesterday. You should see how much he has improved.” Or “She has been really working to improve her running times and it’s really paying off.”
  • Teach children that there are tiny steps in reaching a goal. Things don’t just happen. Lay out each stage your child will need to accomplish in order to achieve something hard that they want and then reward every little step in that direction.
  • A mindset can be changed – yours and your child’s.

No parent sets out to undermine a child’s skills or to create a child who is afraid to attempt anything hard because it knocks them off their safe pedestal of always being the smart one or the fast one. But when we continue to praise ability, and not effort, we fall into the Fixed Mindset and our children will follow along with us.  We are all capable of reaching for a Growth Mindset; it just takes, well, it takes some effort!