How To Praise a Child

Carol Dweck wrote one of the defining books about mindset in education in the early 2000s. Her work may have even introduced the term “mindset” to many educators. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Praise effort instead of praising aptitude,” that’s Dweck. Dweck discovered that the practice of praising a student’s mental capabilities (e.g. intelligence) negatively influenced their motivation. She found much better results praising a student for their effort and perseverance. Doing so helps students develop what she calls a “growth mindset.” The person with the growth mindset sees setbacks as hurdles to overcome instead of evidence of a person’s inability. Dweck was instrumental in arguing that students who were often seen as failures could be rehabilitated and develop a more positive view of themselves.

Her mindset descriptions still influence conversations about education more than a decade after publishing. As with many ideas that explode in popularity, many people did misinterpret the intentions of her work. Some adults are using the growth mindset language as a way of criticizing students for being upset about failures. The adults might demand that the student see failure as part of the learning process instead of empathizing with the student in the face of frustration and giving them space to process it. The message the student hears is the same as with criticism: Be better.

Should you praise effort or praise action? Well, I think there is a third option. We could say nothing. What we have forgotten to question is whether praise is necessary at all. Notice that I’m asking whether praise is necessary. Does praise have to be present in order to encourage our children. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to try to come to your own conclusions.

Praising a child

Is Your Praise Approval?

Researchers have rightfully warned today’s parents to be cautious about sending messages to our children that they need to win our approval. When we issue praises for behavior we may be sending confusing signals that they have won our approval. If they can win it, they can lose it. Children who fear they can lose their parents’ approval are more likely to try to hide their risky behaviors.


Is Your Praise Recognition?

Does your child know that what they’ve done is actually praiseworthy? Are you telling them something they already know or are you helping them understand that what they’ve done is something they should feel proud of. A student already knows they should do their homework. They don’t need to hear praise for that. However, they may not know that the average student won’t study for a test unless asked to. If you see them studying for a test then that seems like something worth recognition.


Is Your Praise Authentic?

Do you mean what you say? Are you genuinely impressed by their choice or the work they’ve done. Most of the time when my kids show me something they’ve created I politely nod and thank them for showing it to me. I like seeing what they are working on and excited about. Sometimes they show me something I didn’t expect and I get just as excited as them. “Wow, that is so cool,” I say. “I didn’t know you could do that!” I think kids can hear the difference between when we are actually impressed and when we are on autopilot.


Does Your Opinion Matter?

Maybe you don’t need to say anything. I choose this option a lot. Not every action or project that a child works on needs to be evaluated. In fact, most things they do shouldn’t be evaluated. Do you remember times when you were playing by yourself growing up? It felt so freeing to just be by yourself. I believe that part of the liberty we felt was because we were away from the opinions of others. You don’t have to have an opinion about everything your kids do. You can choose to say nothing.

If you ask yourself these questions you’ll likely come to the same conclusions I have—kids don’t need praise that much. Praising less has freed me to spend more quality time with my kids and time to do more things I want to do. Of course if you have other questions that help you, please share in the comment section!

Here are a few interesting links for furthering your understanding on the topic of praise:

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Philip Mott

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