Parenting

The Right Way to Praise a Child

You can't hand children self esteem by telling them they're great. When you tell them they're brilliant or talented, it stunts them. They worry about doing something difficult that might expose them as not brilliant.
10/22/2015 12:33pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017

Have you ever changed how you approached something important -- like being a mom -- simply after reading a book? I have. The book was Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. I think it would be a great addition to the basket of treats moms get in the hospital when their babies are born.

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We had the pleasure of interviewing Carol on the talk show a while back. Here are some highlights...

You can't hand children self esteem by telling them they're great. When you tell them they're brilliant or talented, it stunts them. They worry about doing something difficult that might expose them as not brilliant.

If you constantly tell a child she's beautiful, the new kid in school who's even more beautiful is suddenly a problem. "That exact thing happened to me," Carol says, "thought not in terms of beauty. I was in the sixth grade, and my teacher seated us around the room in IQ order. So there I was. I happened to be in the first seat in the first row, and a new girl came into the class in the middle of the year. And instead of thinking, 'She looks nice -- she might be a friend,' I thought, 'Oh, no. Maybe she'll take my seat.' At the time I thought that seating in IQ order was terrible, but it probably played an important role in the work I do."

Children with varying levels of intelligence can learn together. Kids for whom math comes easy, for example, understand it at a deeper level when they explain it to those who find it difficult. They also learn to have patience with people who aren't as intelligent, which is great preparation for life beyond the classroom.

Praise a child for what she has control over -- her effort, her attitude, her persistence. And most importantly, model that persistence yourself.

How do you react to someone who's more successful? People with a growth mindset, as Carol calls it, look to success stories for inspiration. But other people, when they see someone who's more accomplished, feel threatened.

I told Carol when our daughter was a freshman in college she struggled with how difficult her classes were. She told us, "Physics is kicking my ass." But she quickly followed that with, "And I love it." She told me one thing that had helped was my attitude about roller skating! I suck at roller skating, and I love it.

Carol loved this story. She loved that Katie didn't say, "I'm not smart enough, I don't belong here, this is going to be a huge failure." Instead she said, "Yes, I'm nervous -- but I'm learning so much and it's so exciting." That growth mindset gave her a way to derive excitement, satisfaction, and hope in the face of that challenge.

You've probably heard that kids don't listen to what you say, but they do watch you live. That's another thing my husband and I did right. Katie watched us have fun as we made mistakes in our business, but kept learning. She watched us be resilient. That helped her become the person I just described.

Carol says many parents don't model growth-oriented lives, and sometimes focus too much on their children in an attempt to forget how disappointed they are with themselves. It's a spirit killer for everyone, and it isn't fair.

"A parent came up to me after a talk," Carol says, "and said her son, who'd just graduated from high school, was part of a group called 'the geniuses.' Every one of those geniuses had gone to an elite college and was now flunking out. They'd been so hyped by their parents, by their schools, by each other, that the challenge -- the difficulty -- of freshman year was not something they could deal with."

I told Carol there isn't a single thing I cherish that isn't the direct result of years of mistakes. But it's difficult to remember as you're messing up yet again that it's okay. It's just part of the deal.

Carol says there's a foundation in Silicon Valley that gives a (coveted) Failure of the Year award and it's not for the project that loses the most money. It's for a group project that failed, but was rich with lessons that could inform their next moves.

Carol's doing research on this "fabulous word," yet. There's a high school in Chicago that gives students a grade of "not yet" if they didn't pass a unit, she says, and she thinks it's fantastic. "They speak about it unabashedly," she adds. "'How many 'not yets' do you have?' Can you imagine someone saying, 'How many failing grades do you have?' No. We're now showing in our research that instead of hiding mistakes from kids, if you say 'not yet' -- or if a child says he's not good at something and you add 'yet' -- it puts everything into a growth mindset package."

It reminded me of one of Katie's professors at NYU, who taught the physics class she found difficult at first. He threw out the midterm grade if the student bombed it but passed the final. He said, "I don't care when you learn it, just so you do."

"Exactly," Carol says. "Anything we can do to help people feel that they're on a learning trajectory. It isn't that they failed. That's so final. The game isn't over. Maybe they haven't reached where they want to go, but they're on their way."

It might help to remember there's nothing inherently wrong with problems. They're a sign you're alive. That's all.

"Absolutely," Carol says. "I tell parents to ask this question at dinner, 'Who had a fabulous struggle today?' Because sometimes we think by the time we grow up we'll have it all figured out and we won't have any problems. That's ridiculous. Are they problems, or are they life? What are you struggling with? Struggle just means you're working on something that matters. You're devoting energy to it. I worked with a unit in one of the top companies in Silicon Valley. They were having trouble. It was this culture of genius, where everyone had to make believe everything came naturally all the time. And they started using the word 'struggle.' They'd say, 'What are you struggling with? What should we struggle with?' It just broke their creativity and innovation wide open."

Without problems, life would be boring. Problems make it fun. The question is, "Are you mostly struggling with the kinds of problems you like to solve?"

Look at those problems with a playful touch, and don't be surprised if your children do the same.

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