Social media feeds are full of video of amazing people doing amazing things that they seem born to do. A 12-year-old schoolgirl knocks an operatic aria out of the park on "America's Got Talent." Young mountain bikers, star athletes, and parkour whizzes wow with us with their dexterity, and Instagram fitness stars show off sculpted shapes that are, in large part, enabled by genetic gifts.
Any day of the week, there's online celebration of natural abilities, inherent gifts, and native intelligence. This seems like a sensible way to appreciate our children; but research now shows us that this approach has the opposite of its intended effect.
Most parents believe that praise for inherent talent, natural ability, and intelligence are key to raising a child's self-esteem and chances of achieving his or her full potential. What we now know, though, is that this kind of praise - for "fixed" qualities, generally regarded as something we're born with and that doesn't change - actually "leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings."
A child praised for fixed qualities is more likely to feel discouraged and give up when things don't come easily or naturally. She may focus more on doing what she knows she can pull off without risk of struggle or failure than on learning and growing.
Praising children for their effort, persistence, or strategies will cultivate a growth mindset, which is now known to be the real recipe for success.
Youth praised for intelligence tended to avoid challenges and stick with easy tasks, and they are more concerned about how they measure up against others than about how to improve their own performance in future tasks. Youth praised for effort prefer challenging tasks and want to learn new strategies to do better, and they don't care as much about others' performance.
Children with greater growth mindsets have better motivation in school and higher achievement. Cultivation of this mindset has been an effective way to narrow the achievement gap related to race and to help girls score higher on math tests (in which boys tend to outperform girls). More importantly, they will be more open to learning in realms of social interactions, intimate and family relationships, and other factors important for overall lifelong happiness.
So: how, exactly, can parents become expert appreciators of their children in ways that cultivate a growth mindset?
Praise effort, persistence or strategies:
• "I love how hard you worked at filling in the coloring sheet with all those bright colors. You stuck with it for a long time and were so patient."
• "You gave your all in the soccer game today. I could really see your heart was in it, and that you were having so much fun supporting your teammates."
• "I see how you're taking a break from this assignment to let your brain rest. You were getting frustrated, and I'm guessing you're going to cool off, regroup, move your body a little to try to re-focus."
Avoid what Carol Dweck calls "person-praise" - "You are so good at soccer!" or "You are so smart at math!" Instead: "You're finding some great ways to hone your soccer skills. You're a dedicated athlete!" or "You're absorbed 100% in figuring out the solutions to these problem sets. You are really focused!"
Cast failure or mistakes as opportunities to learn. It's fully possible to praise a child for effort/persistence/strategy even when they screw up. Praise resiliency.
• "Oh man, you got a pretty low grade on your assignment! And now, I see you are looking over your paper, trying to figure out where you got off track. I know you made your best effort. How about we look it over and brainstorm some ways you might have gotten some of these questions you missed?"
• "You didn't get cast in the play this time around, but you got to have this great experience of auditioning - that took a ton of bravery to show up for that!"
Walk your talk! Talk with your children about your own efforts, persistence and strategies, casting them as positive and sharing how good it feels to try hard and keep at it - even when you are unable to do what you set out to do. Let them know how you persevered through setbacks and disappointments and talk about the difficult feelings of failure and how to work through them.
Encourage practice, experimentation, and process leading to mastery; discourage comparisons to others.
Encourage more when a child is doing something he/she isn't naturally good at. Back off on praise when the child is in the zone of natural gifts and native abilities and instead focus on the places in their life where they demonstrate grit and resilency.
Be sincere. When encouraging others be authentic and realistic. Don't force it; see if you can find three things to be grateful for, just in general, to shift your mood, and praise only when you feel it from the heart.