“You’re so smart!”
“You’re so creative!”
“You’re so . . . [insert convenient, but possibly damaging description here]”
The other day during a frantic scramble to get my one-year-old to music class, I watched her perform her latest trick—slipping into her little gym shoes and tightening the Velcro straps all by herself. She then stared at me as I sloppily filled the stroller with diapers, toys, string cheese, and other random items until I rattled off something like, “Good job, Jasmin. You’re so smart.” She flashed all eight of her teeth at me. As I started to put my own shoes on, Jasmin proceeded to rip hers off. “Jas, put your shoes back on; we need to go!” I said. She proficiently slid them back on and looked up again. “OK, let’s go!” I pleaded, to which she replied “Ehhhhhhhh!” (Translation: “That’s not what I want!”)
Because I was in no mood for this debate, I cheered, “Good job, my little smarty pants!” For good measure, I clapped. She clapped, too. Great, I thought, now we can go. But instead, she took her shoes off again. We ended up missing half the class. Worse yet, I had created a praise junkie. Even at this young age, my daughter craved to be rewarded for her feat. I kicked myself because, as an emotional intelligence teacher, I should know better.
Our child performs; we praise—often without thought. What’s the harm, right? After all, it’s just a quick verbal pat on the back. But here’s the harm: Praise often motivates children . . . to receive more praise. And when praise labels a child (e.g., “I am smart”), it’s easy to focus on looking good instead of learning. In fact, research reveals this focus on looking good can become so intense that it encumbers kids from taking simple chances such as raising their hands in class. In short, telling kids they are “smart” can make them act the opposite. So how should we praise our kids to build an effective motivational framework? Check out three research-based strategies below:
1. Praise the process, not the person
The research: In groundbreaking studies, researcher Carol Dweck found that the way we praise kids can affect their mindset and, in turn, their propensity to take on challenges, persevere, and succeed academically. Dweck identified two particular mindsets: fixed versus growth.
Kids with fixed mindsets believe things such as intelligence, character, and creative ability are innate and immutable. In other words, no matter how much they study or how much effort they exert, they’re pretty much stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt. Because children with fixed mindsets believe their potential is capped, they avoid challenges that test their abilities.