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. 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.
Melitsa @ Raising Playful Tots says
Praise is one of those conversations where hubby and I talk about a lot in the car.
Getting the right words doesn’t come easy. It’s so much part of how we grew up. What we heard.
It’s really easy to dismiss things or go to the extremes.
I love this discussion.
I loved the chapter in Nurtureshock and interviewed Ashley Merryman on show #86.
I will have to check out your interview! What a wonderful guest! I enjoyed Nurtureshock very much as well!
Hands Free Mama says
I love what you have written here and the resources you offer. You are so right. We often find ourselves in conflict when giving praise — did I say too much? did I say too little? was I specific enough? And one thing that I often worry about is: Am I setting her up to need external reinforcement — a need to hear from others that she is doing well? I love your point about saying what is on your heart. I have come to the point in my parenting journey where if I feel something loving about my child in my heart, I say it. I would never want to miss the chance to tell my child something I love about her. I have also tried to remove the judgement and just say simply “I love to hear you read” (rather than you are such a good reader) or “I love to listen to you play your ukulele.” Because it is true. And like you said, our children need to hear these loving words from us. If your parent is not your biggest fan, who is?
Thank you for your beautiful article, as always.
Thank you so much,Rachel. I love your suggestion for “I love…” statements. A beautifully sincere way to reinforce without judgement.
Rebecca B. says
Thanks for the link to watch Ellen on Katie Couric. Looking forward to watching it.
I love hearing Ellen Galinsky live. She’s so real and down-to-earth.
Amanda, this one of the most beautiful, brilliant, loving posts I’ve ever read. Something deep within me just relaxed, because I DO tell my children these things from time to time… I can’t help myself…it just bursts out of me. I am so filled with love and joy when I say “you are so wonderful and beautiful” that I can’t believe there could be anything wrong with this. But still, I feel a bit guilty and doubting. And I am prone to guilt and self-doubt anyway, so who needs more? I’m just now realizing that I’ve never given these ideas conscious thought, so again, Amanda, thank you for freeing me with your wise words. You are a gift!
Janet. As always, I am honored to have you reading, and quite literally awe-struck by your kind words. Thank you for so much for all you share.
Alisha @ Your Kid's Table says
I am so grateful for this post! I really struggle with praise and feel like I end up saying “good job” or “your so smart” part of the time anyways. As you described it is such a conscience process to give intentional and specific praise, I know I stumble on my words at times. However, those special times when I really do want to say, “You are so smart!”, I can now guilt free.
Thank you, Alisha. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
Great post, and I love reading ideas for specific wording. I often catch myself saying something vague to my son like, “Good job” without highlighting the effort behind it. I also loved the comment from Hands Free Mama about saying, “I love to hear you/ watch you ____.” I think that is such a sweet way to show your child that you value their interests.
Crickett Heassler says
I have been in preschool circles for over 25 years as a teacher, business owner, nanny, new author , parent and now grandparent. I have to say, that the above article was the most balanced piece written on this issue , I have read to date. Nicely put.
It took me a long time to realize that the data we are drawing information from now is just what we think we know….It is all subject to change. The use of common sense is so needed. Bravo! Really.
Wow, Crickett. Thank you so much! I love what you said: “It took me a long time to realize that the data we are drawing information from now is just what we think we know….It is all subject to change”. I love research and data, but it’s true, the tides seem to change fairly frequently. We have to keep perspective. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your kind words!
As with so many of your posts, I truly love what you share about not only raising and teaching children but being with children. This post raises one additional thought, how about being genuinely interested in what children are doing? There is no bigger smile that I’ve seen when I sit down with a child, and I am full of genuine interest and curiousity about them and what they are doing. This takes a little more effort because we are asked to take a second out of our paths to accomplishment and jump onto theirs. Not only does this provide some positive encouragement but, hey, why not build a connection while you’re at it!
Such a great, great point, Mary! Thank you!