We, as parents, are significantly contributing to the beliefs (or mindset) of our children. When we praise our children for ability, rather than effort, we give them a fixed mindset. A child with a fixed mindset will look for external validation and excellent results to prove and reinforce the belief that you gave them. Let’s use the opening example to explain further – “Wow, I’m so proud of your drawing, you’re an incredible artist”. In this statement you are telling your child that they ARE an incredible artist (your evaluation). You are also telling them that their excellent artistic ability is what makes you proud of them. There are a few things that are detrimental to your child with this sort of praise:
1. You have labelled them a great artist, so now anything less than great will make them feel like being a failure.
2. This is also an external judgement of it being a great drawing, not their own conclusion. This builds a need in them to seek out other’s approval, not being able to judge or appreciate it for themselves.
3. You linked your pride in them to the excellent drawing, so therefore, if they do a drawing that’s not so good, it implies that you will not be proud of them.
Imagine this instead – “Wow, look at that drawing, you must have worked really hard on that”. By tweaking up how you acknowledged their drawing, you shifted their focus from their ability, to their effort. You’ve still acknowledged their drawing but there’s no link in their minds to you being proud of them because of their ability or because it had to be perfect. This means that when they do a drawing that isn’t brilliant, they won’t have their own self-esteem tied to the result – bad drawing means I’m hopeless and Mum/Dad aren’t proud of me. Instead they will reflect on a bad drawing as, “maybe I just need some more practice to get a better outcome”. This type of thinking doesn’t damage their self-esteem and encourages them to keep trying and not quitting (often quitting is an action to protect self-esteem from more of a hit).
Just this week my 16 year old son sent me an sms from school (let’s not go there about what he’s doing on his phone at school), to excitedly tell me that he got an A for a maths test. I could have replied with something like, “Wow, this is an excellent result, you’re so good at maths”. However, if I had responded like that I would have linked his good grade to his ability, not effort. If he didn’t do so well in his next test, he would automatically link it to NOT being good at maths and feeling like a failure (also increasing his likelihood of giving up). Here’s how I responded to his sms, “That’s a great reflection of the work that you’ve put in and your positive approach towards study. I’m so happy for you”. By framing my praise around the effort, not the result, this means that if he does badly next time, he has the ‘growth mindset’ to reflect on why the result wasn’t as good (maybe he didn’t study so hard) and then his self-esteem is intact and he’s learnt that working harder would have changed that outcome.
It’s never too early or too late to start this type of talk with your children. When they are first attempting new things – walking, writing, reading, swinging etc – be careful to praise the effort, not the result. It takes a little bit of practice at first, but it won’t be long and you’ll find it much easier to do.
Good luck as you help your children grow into stable adults who won’t be searching for external validation of their worth.