One of my more popular posts is the one entitled Praise Junkies Beware. It talks about research which contradicts the self-esteem movement of the 80s and 90s. Back then, we thought that if we heaped praise on kids and told them how wonderful they are, they would indeed be wonderful.
I remember as a kid back then, sitting through a regular program in our school where we colored, sang, and talked about how awesome we all were. And even as a seven year-old (a somewhat precocious seven year-old, but a seven year-old nonetheless) I thought it was a bit cheesey. And that’s the first problem with indiscriminate praise. Our kids see right through it. They know you don’t mean it.
Perhaps more importantly, current research shows that this type of “fixed mindset” praise (as it’s referred to in Mind in the Making) actually backfires. When children begin to believe that their worth lies in attributes that they can’t control (things they just “are” — “You are so smart!” “You are so good at this!”) they tend to avoid challenges, afraid of making mistakes and losing their labels. But when they receive “growth mindset” praise (“You’re working really hard at this!” “I can tell you’ve been practicing!”) they are more willing to do the work that they’re being praised for. They’ll take the risk, work hard, and practice, because they view their worth as coming from their effort, not their fixed label.
This information is extremely important and useful as we try to be mindful about the ways we talk to our children. But just like anything else, there’s danger in getting too much of a “good thing”.
Now and then I’ll have a parent or teacher ask me if it’s OK to say things like, “I’m proud of you”, “You’re so smart”, “You look so pretty”. Or I’ll hear someone stumble through an awkward compliment because they’re trying to pick exactly the “right” words. I know what they’re getting at. They don’t want to use labels in praise or put emphasis on the fixed mindset. But at the same time, the idea of a parent or teacher withholding kind words makes me cringe a bit too.
So here’s what it boils down to. Research is only as good as the sense you use to apply it.
Based on the research, we know we need to emphasize the growth mindset when praising children. We need to be genuine and specific and avoid judgment and labels (find more tips on effective praise here). The majority of our praise needs to fall in the category of growth mindset.
But now and then, it is completely appropriate to tell our kids they are smart, they are beautiful, and they are amazing. Because they are. And because there was some truth in that thinking back in the 80s and 90s that wondered how our kids will ever think they’re great if we never tell them.
I have a good friend, who told me her parents had never said she was pretty. I’m sure they believed she was, but they were trying to avoid putting too much emphasis on her physical appearance. The problem was, she said she never really thought she was pretty. Not as a child, not as a teenager, and honestly, not even as the beautiful adult standing before me. Potentially more problematic, she said that the first time a boy ever told her she was beautiful, you could have knocked her over with a feather. That’s a dangerous situation, one that could lead to manipulation and an unhealthy power balance.
Mandi Ehman addresses this perfectly in her post, Why I Tell My Daughters They’re Beautiful Often. She nails it when she says, “On the other hand, if they already hear — and believe — that the people who truly love and support them think they’re beautiful, then they will be less taken in by pretty words and promises. They’ll have self-confidence and not have to look for it in other places.”
Even Ellen Galinsky, the brilliant researcher and author behind Mind in the Making corrects the misapplication of the literature on praise in an interview with Katie Couric (which you can watch here as well as another discussion about praise here). After Ellen explains the research, Katie Couric asks,”So are you saying that you shouldn’t say, “Wow you’re really smart”?” To which Ellen replies, “Well every once in a while, of course.” Then the two go on to clarify, reiterating the importance that the majority of the praise we give should be centered in effort and work, things the children can control and improve on.
We have to be careful about riding the pendulum of research to the extremes. We started with research a few decades ago that said kids respond to praise, so we gave it indiscriminately. Now we know that the type of praise we give is also important, so we measure every word and try to get it “right”. It’s wonderful that we’re more aware and thoughtful, but we can’t let our over-thinking get in the way of a true emotional connection. One where we are sincere and honest. Where we tell our kids, now and then and right along with all that growth mindset praise, “you are a smart kid”, and “you are so beautiful”.
Because they are. And they do need to hear it from us.