Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

How to Praise Your Kid

How to Praise Your Kid

You’re proud of your kid. She’s super smart. She blows you away with how quickly she learns things. She really athletic, too. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that she’s funny, sensitive, and sweet as well. I LOVE how proud parents are of their kids – they always tell me, “I’m sure all parents probably say this about their kids, but. . . .” All parents do say that, but I love it because I’ve also hopelessly felt that way since each of my kids was born.

It’s only natural to want to share that pride with your kid and anyone else who will listen. We tend to do this with praise. We praise our kids all day long, because they’re awesome, it feels good, and we want them to grow up strong and confident. But that’s not enough! It turns out that how we praise our kids is crucial to how resilient they become as both children and adults

One of my favorite books is Brain Rules For Baby (Pear Press, 2010) by John Medina. Medina is a molecular biologist who starts with the science of how young brains work and then applies it to everyday situations where you can help your child. Medina identifies effort as the most important factor in success. And he points to a specific type of praise as the best tool to foster that effort.

It’s natural to praise your kid for being smart, talented, or athletic – you’re proud of her and you want everyone to bask in that. But she doesn’t have any control over her natural abilities. She might be blessed with your spouse’s “superior genetics” and naturally be really fast or an amazing reader. But that happened automatically!

So if she is frequently praised for those talents, she will tend to feel that her mistakes are failures that are outside of her control. She might feel that intelligence or athletic ability is static, or something that can’t be changed. She may become more concerned with looking smart (since that’s what she’s praised for) rather than putting in the work required to learn. This has become known as a “fixed mindset.”

Medina describes a different “growth mindset” you can give your kid by praising her effort. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart! I can’t believe you can do a sixty-piece puzzle!” say, “Wow, great job! You must have worked so hard to finish that!”

If your kid is tearing it up on the soccer field, it sounds innocent enough to say, “You were the best one out there today! I can’t believe how many goals you scored!” Instead, try to say, “You played so hard today! You never gave up and kept trying to get the ball the entire time!”

When helping them with homework, try to avoid saying that they’ve gotten something wrong (which closes the door) in favor of saying that they haven’t gotten it right yet (which leaves the door to improvement open). Remember that your kid is always listening, so try to praise effort and perseverance even when bragging to grandparents or friends (or even your pediatrician!) in your kids’ presence.

Kids who are praised in this way learn that they can control their effort, and research has shown that they achieve more in school and even as adults. Medina specifically mentions some interesting research by researcher and Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. She found that kids praised for effort regularly finished 50 to 60 percent more difficult math problems than kids of similar ability who were praised for their intelligence. These growth mindset kids like challenges and are confident that they can master anything with enough work.

Dweck has shown that the fixed mindset kids respond to challenges as if they are catastrophic and tend to shut down, cheat, or point out someone who did worse than them. She and others have even started to integrate this growth mindset thinking into underprivileged classrooms across the country with impressive results.

You can see a ten minute TED talk of Carol Dweck talking about this at:

Praising effort doesn’t come naturally, at least for me, so this is something I think about every day when I interact with my kids. And especially when I catch myself bragging to their pediatrician.

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