Talking to kids: in praise of effort

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In my post on task persistence I cited the work of Carol Dweck, her growth mindset approach (and book) and her Brainology curriculum. In this post, I’d like to talk a little more about how we offer praise and reinforcement to children.

By the time they get into school, many kids have well-established ideas about their abilities and “talents.” Whether the messages they’ve received are subtle or overt, some children have already come to accept that they are “smart” or “not very bright” or “lazy” — designations that seem as unchangeable as brown eyes.

What these messages suggest is that achievement is not based on personal effort, but on some fixed quality or character. The “smart” kids think they don’t really have to try because everything will come to them; the “not-so-smart” kids think they don’t have to try because they already know they’re going to fail.

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset approach helps children “understand that their intelligence can be developed. Instead of worrying about how smart they are, they work hard to learn more and get smarter.”

In his blog, Playdate Nation, Scott T. cites the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman and the authors’ conclusion that “too much praise actually weakens children’s defense mechanisms and reduces their ability to respond to failure.” (Be sure to read about Scott’s praise experiment with his 4-year-old daughter.)

So where does that leave parents who want to encourage their child’s efforts without loading on “dangerous” praise?

The biggest challenge is resisting the easy, automatic phrases that we heard as children and parrot back without thinking. As Scott recounts, in his experiment with Sophia he had to stop himself at each praising opportunity and consider another way to engage with his daughter — to show interest and appreciation without suggesting that she had achieved her results because she was smart or pretty or talented.

Do any of these less-than-ideal phrases sound familiar?

  • I knew you’d do a good job because you’re so smart/talented/pretty/graceful/handsome/etc. (Note that these are all attributes that may be true but required no effort or skill on the part of the child.)
  • That drawing (or other achievement) is beautiful (or other general praise). (Rather than finding something specific and meaningful to comment on, parents often praise even mediocre achievements with this kind of statement.)
  • Of course it’s good – you’re an “A” student. (While good grades are definitely praiseworthy, without referring to the child’s specific efforts to achieve top grades, the “A student” description isn’t much different from talented/smart/pretty.)

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What can you say instead? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Express appreciation for effort: I love watching you [fill in the task] because you’re so [fill in the descriptor – focused, careful, thoughtful, excited, energetic, etc.]
  • Express curiosity about complexity/novelty: Have you ever done [fill in the task] this way before? What made you decide to do it this way? Did you learn anything from doing it this way? Was it fun to try something new?
  • Express appreciation for specific positive achievements even when the overall results were less than hoped-for: I’m so impressed that you decided to do [fill in the task] without being asked. You worked really hard to understand the _____. The time you spent on _______ really paid off, didn’t it? It’s really terrific that you remembered ______ from the other day.
  • Express the belief that success and solutions are achievable: Let’s work together to see if we can figure out another way to do this. What would be a good thing to try to make this work better?

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gold starAt first, this way of thinking and these phrases might seem awkward, but, as Scott discovered in his experiment, children are ready to engage in conversation about what they do and to build success through effort and experience.

What feedback phrases work best for you and your child? I’d love to hear about your successes in the effort-versus-talent challenge!

If your child has difficulty reading, writing or spelling, Lexercise can help. Take a look at our Online Dyslexia Testing and Treatment page or contact me directly at AskSandie@Lexercise.com or 1-919-747-4557.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.