Developmental Edge: When praise backfires, the secret behind motivation

The praise parents give to their kids can strongly influence their self-esteem, intelligence, and disposition to take on challenges. However, according to new studies, certain types of praise may actually do more harm than good. For example, saying: “you are so smart”, may not be the best type of praise – it could even discourage a child to take on new challenges. Research by Carol Dweck, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, showed that children who perceive their success as a result of their inherent intelligence, were more prone to have a “fixed mindset”. This means that they see talent and intelligence as something they were born with, not as skills that can be learned and nurtured through effort. This becomes especially problematic when their identities become attached to an outcome.

But what exactly happens when a child grows up hearing praises like “you are so smart”?

According to Dr. John Medina, author of the national bestseller “Brain Rules for Baby”,  your child will start to perceive his mistakes as failures. This happens because he is used to seeing his previous successes as a static ability, that is, natural talents he was born with rather than a product of his effort. Failure is thus perceived as a lack of ability, which he has no control over. In comparison, when children are praised for effort they tend to develop, what Dweck calls, a “growth mindset”. This type of mindset allows children to have an uplifting attitude towards failure. In other words, they will tend to believe that when faced with hardships, having persistence will lead them to success.

As can be seen, effort is a key element in a “growth mindset”, but the question is: how can parents produce that kind of effort from their children? Surprisingly, it is how you praise them! Dr. Medina explained that what parents praise defines what their child perceives success to be and here is where parents make a common mistake: applauding the final outcome, such as a grade or talent. So, instead of saying, ‘I’m so proud of you, you’re so smart!’ parents should say, ‘Good job, you got that answer right! Show me how you did it,’ or “I’m so proud of you, you must have studied really hard!” Instead of praising their final outcomes, parents should praise on their strategies, improvement, or effort, to teach their kids that intellectual skills can be acquired. By doing this, children are more likely to view challenges as opportunities rather than limitations. Encountering setbacks are inevitable in the journey to success, parents should start teaching their children how to embrace challenges by praising them in the right way.

If you want to practice the right kind of praise, here is an activity you can use to encourage motivation and perseverance in your little one.



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