Why Praising Children May Do More Harm Than Good (And Here’s The Antidote)

Life

“I’m not giving up mum!” said my four-year-old son as the world’s tiniest claw popped off his new Lego dinosaur creation time and again.

This phrase is becoming a common feature of our days. Each time he delivers his powerful statement, whether he’s rock hopping across a mountain stream or mastering bike riding, I can’t help but be moved by his resilience and conviction.

I could sense my little guy’s frustration building but, secretly I felt overjoyed to see him rising to a challenge; to keep going when the end was in sight but it wasn’t coming easily.

Ordinarily, I’d ask if I could help while praising him for the incredible job he’d done so far.

But, lately I’ve been focusing the importance of fostering a growth mindset and how the type of praise we give can help or hinder our children’s long term ability to develop their intelligence, grow resilience and reach their full potential.

Because praise is more complicated than it appears. From fuelling an internal sense of control to enabling a life-changing growth mindset, the words we choose can have a lasting impact on whether our children thrive.

What is the difference between a fixed and growth mindset?

Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, studies the impact of mindset in children. She has found that children, like adults, have one of two possible mindsets; a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A mindset is simply a belief that we hold to be true about ourselves, such as “I’m smart” “I’m shy” “I’m athletic” “I’m strong” “I’m weak”. 

When it comes to intelligence the traditional model of a fixed mindset would have our children believe that they are either “smart” or “dumb”. It is time for a paradigm shift!

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck says that “in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”

Children with a fixed mindset who believe that they aren’t intelligent avoid challenges as poor performance reinforces their belief that they can’t learn, that they aren’t smart.

On the other end of the spectrum, kids with a fixed mindset who believe that they are intelligent also shy away from a challenge but for a different reason; their mindset is closely tied to their ego so they protect it by avoid situations that may shatter that belief by potentially failing. Subconsciously or not, they avoid proving that they may be less intelligent than they or someone else believes.

In contrast, Dweck says that in a growth mindset, “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Children who embrace a growth mindset believe in the power of effort; that they can learn more or become smarter through hard work and determination. These kids are likely to learn more, learn faster and see mistakes as learning opportunities.

How Praise Impacts Mindset

Kids are more likely to develop a fixed mindset if they are told time after time that they’re smart. This type of praise results in a propensity to care most about how others judge or perceive them; smart or not smart.

These children become fearful of exerting too much effort because effort makes them feel unintelligent. They believe that if they have the ability, effort isn’t required. They’re afraid that if they need to try really hard to do something they will lose their status of being smart.

On the other hand, kids with a growth mindset, tend to care most about process of learning itself. Children who have been encouraged to focus on their efforts rather than their intelligence see effort as a positive thing. Effort ignites and grows their intelligence. These children increase their efforts in the face of failure and look for new learning strategies rather than giving up. This attitude nourishes resilience and unlocks a positive approach to lifelong learning.

The Right Mindset Grows Our Children’s Intelligence

Dweck’s research supports the idea that a growth mindset is a catalyst for achievement. The foundation of our intelligence can be influenced through learning as our brain has much more plasticity than we ever imagined possible.

Just like any other muscle in the body, the more we use our brain the stronger it becomes.

Through practice and repetition, neural networks create new pathways, strengthen existing connections and thicken the myelin sheaths (or insulation) that accelerates the transmission of nerve impulses. Children with a growth mindset exercise their brain more as they understand that effort itself grows their intelligence.

Praising Process Vs. Praising Results

In one of my favourite books, The Danish Way, the authors describe a series of experiments with 5th graders conducted by Carol Dweck to demonstrate how praise influences mindset, ultimately affecting students’ academic performance in a classroom setting.

Two groups of students were given specific tasks to work on and then received different types of praise for their work.

Some students heard statements that encouraged a fixed mindset such as, “You must be smart at solving these problems”. While other students heard statement that encouraged a growth mindset such as, “You must have worked hard on solving these problems”.

In a follow-up study, the two groups of students were asked to give their definition of intelligence. The students who had been praised for intelligence said they thought intelligence was an innate trait that was fixed, whereas the ones who were praised for effort thought it was something you could grow with work.

Students were then given the option to work on an easy or difficult problem. The students who with the fixed mindset chose to do the easy problem, while the students with the growth mindset chose the challenging problem.

Afterwards, all students were given a complicated task. The children with the fixed mindset lost their confidence as they experienced difficulties solving the problem. For them, success meant being innately smart, so struggling made them feel unintelligent. While, the kids with growth mindsets were eager to attempts to solve the problems.

Later, the students were asked anonymously to report their results. The fixed mindset group over-reported their results more than 40 percent of the time. Their self-image was so tied up in their scores that they were reluctant to admit failure, whereas the growth mindset group adjusted their scores only 10 percent of the time.

Let’s Open Our Kids Up To Growth

The deeper I journey into parenthood, the more I am humbled by what I don’t know. Understanding that praising my son for his achievements is potentially doing more harm than good was a true aha moment for me.

In the context of this new knowledge, when I look at myself, my own fixed mindset becomes glaringly obvious. I was often praised for being smart. I can see that my ego became linked to achieving high grades in school, fuelling a hunger to please others by proving myself worthy.

So, perhaps the first step in helping our children develop a growth mindset is to recognize our own mindset and what it is that we are modelling to our kids. Learning doesn’t finish at an arbitrary age and it isn’t limited to academics. We can continue to grow and push past the barriers our younger selves may have erected. Maybe we’ll learn that we’re smarter, funnier, happier, stronger and more creative than we ever realized.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Iben Sandahl

Let’s open up our children’s minds to growth, so that they have the courage to dream big. To innovate and create. Let’s remove the shackles of a fixed mindset and teach them from a young age that they are always enough.

This is such an important topic that I will be dedicating an entire post to the topic of how to nourish a growth mindset, but here are a few of my favourite tools to help you to start today….

1. Engage in Regular Growth Mindset Activities

One of my favourite resources is The Big Life Journal. It encourages kids to embrace challenges and persevere. It incorporates reading, expressive writing, and critical thinking while teaching social and emotional learning and growth mindset skills. It is suitable for kids 6-11 years of age.

Big Life Journal also has an incredible range of printables, posters and activities including a Challenges Kit, Inspirational Quotes Bundle, Famous Failures Kit and Growth Mindset Poster that are suitable for kids of all ages.

And Big Life Journal has just launched a Tween + Teen Journal specifically for 12-14 year olds.

2. Teach Your Kids About How The Brain Grows

Depending on your child’s age find a way to explain that when learning feels difficult it is because their brain is growing and forming new connections that will make them smarter. The dendrites (or the arms of their neurons) are reaching out to connect with one another. Mindset Works has a great animation video here that shows how it works.

3. Use Process Rather than Results Driven Praise

Here are some examples of praise that can help develop a growth rather than fixed mindset.

Say “I can see you worked so hard on this!” rather than “You’re so clever!”

Say “It looks like that was too easy for you. Let’s find someting more challenging so your brain can grow” rather than “You did that so quickly and easily. You are so amazing.”

Say “That was really hard but you stuck with it. I’m so proud of the effort you made” rather than “That was so hard. I’m so happy it’s over and you don’t have to do that again.”

“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. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.” Carol Dweck

*This post contains affiliate links, which means I may make a small commission on products purchased, at no extra cost to you. This helps support the running costs of Raised Good. Thank you so much for your support! 

COMMENTS
  • July 25, 2018
    Becky

    Thank you! I am so glad you mentioned the importance of knowing my own mindset, as a parent. I definitely am more fixed than I want to be and am eager to challenge myself to break free into a more growth mindset and welcome challenges. I have to model the growth I want my children to embrace.

  • July 25, 2018
    Amanda Lai

    This is so amazing. This really hit home and struck a chord. As a homeschooling family I am going to take this advice to heart

  • July 25, 2018
    Amie

    Another great post, thank you Tracy. This really spoke to me – “fuelling a hunger to please others by proving myself worthy” – this is something I’ve been trying to unpick about myself since becoming a parent, as I’d love my daughter to grow with a stronger sense of self worth than I maybe see on self reflection. The praise is a difficult habit to change but the more I learn, the more I can see those connections.

  • July 25, 2018

    Great article. My husband and I are trying to remember to use growth mindset words with our son. It’s hard to overcome a lifetime of “good boy!” and “you’re so clever!” talk though. This is a good reminder! I also love those mindset journals. Will definitely get one for my son when he’s older.

  • July 27, 2018
    Breanne

    Hi,
    I’m appreciating this article as I’ve been noticing my 16 months daughter is being told by her father 20+ times a day “Good girl” for absolutely no reason. He’ll pick her up or put her down and just the most basic thing to which needs no commendation of “Good” Do you have any ideas for strategies or suggestions to shift away from his fixed mindset?! Thanks!

  • August 01, 2018
    Brian Ferret

    Wow, what a great post. This hits close to home. Being careful when to praise is essential, honestly.

    When we do want to praise our child or other children, it has to be for something that is in their control.

    Effort and persistence, or making emotionally tamed decisions are two examples that come to mind.

  • August 02, 2018
    Karen Ching

    I love this mindset. I also love the quote from Carol Dweck. Parents really have to be careful for their children not to be “slaves of praise”. This is so mind-opening. Thanks for your insights! Love lots, xoxo

  • August 29, 2018
    Mellsa A. Heath

    I am doing some research for a presentation I have in Mid-October in Missouri, and come across this material. I couldnt stop reading it nor snapping screen shots of the reading passages. Very well written.
    I would love an email contact and maybe learn more about your mission.

  • September 08, 2018
    Maxine

    I love reading these posts. Particularly when I feel my 7 year old has just taken a huge step up in the world of growth, and I want to grow with her and nurture her growth.
    Is the Big Life Journal available in the Uk?

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