Thoughtful Parenting: Not all praise is equal | SteamboatToday.com

Thoughtful Parenting: Not all praise is equal

Samantha Coyne Donnel For Steamboat Today

Thoughtful parenting youth

How does your child respond to challenges? Do they persist and persevere, or do they throw in the towel as soon as a task becomes too difficult?

As a parent and educator, I do not know what the future will hold for my own daughter and the kids that I teach. What I do know, however, is that at some point all of our kids will encounter stumbling blocks, and how they react to setbacks will ultimately determine their success. With the right coaching, teaching and parenting, we can help to foster resilience and adaptability in our kids.

One of the more powerful tools parents can use to help their children view mistakes as learning opportunities is to offer growth-oriented praise and encouragement. Stanford University professor Carol Dweck spent decades researching how individual beliefs about ability and intelligence impact achievement. She noticed that some people believe their intelligence and abilities are innate — that you were born smart, for example, or that you inherited the soccer gene.

According to Dweck, these individuals have a "fixed" mindset, which means they avoid challenges and assume intelligence and abilities are predetermined. Other people attribute success and achievement more to hard work, coaching and learning from mistakes. These individuals possess what Dweck calls a "growth" mindset, and they believe that they can "get smart" and develop competence through effective effort.

What does this have to do with praising your kids? Dweck's research has shown that parental praise can significantly impact a child's mindset. When we commend our children for their intelligence, we encourage a fixed mindset.

While our children may succeed in the short term, they are more likely to give up when they encounter a challenge. Instead of viewing setbacks as an opportunity to grow, they lose confidence in their abilities and assume they are no longer capable. Over time, fixed mindsets can lead to decreased performance, higher anxiety and reduced confidence.

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On the other hand, when we praise our children for their effort, we promote a growth mindset. Consequently, our children learn that they develop expertise through efficacy, hard work and reflection.

How should parents offer praise and encouragement to foster a growth mindset?

  • Attribute success to effective effort rather than talent.  For example, "Great job in the soccer game! I can see all your hard work is paying off."  Instead of, "You're a natural at soccer."
  • Respond to your child's setbacks by encouraging them to invest in new strategies and approaches. For example, "It seems like it's time to try another approach."  Instead of, "It looks like you are not good at math."
  • Teach kids how they can grow their brains and develop their abilities through practice and reflection.
  • Pay attention to how you talk about your own strengths, weaknesses, and mistakes.

While it may seem simple to implement this approach with children, it can be difficult if adults possess a fixed mindset about their own abilities. Dweck's research suggests that those with a fixed mindset can shift to a growth mindset with the right type of practice, but it may take time. 

In any circumstance, we have the greatest capacity to influence children's beliefs when parents, educators and coaches deliver consistent messages that reinforce the value of achieving expertise through hard work and by persevering through challenges.

Samantha Coyne Donnel is the head of school at Emerald Mountain School, a K-8 independent school in Steamboat Springs.

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