How should we give praise and encouragement to our kids? No parent or teacher thinks, ‘I wonder what I can do today to destroy my child’s confidence, rubbish their achievements and mock their efforts to do better.’ We want our kids to flourish and be successful. So we dole out generous heaps of praise to try to get the best out of them.
Children love to be praised too, and they absorb praise for their talents and cleverness like blotting paper. They like the ‘you-are- brilliant/smart/special, etc.’ endorsements best. It gives them a real boost.
However, when we overpraise children with global statements like these or, worse, allow them to overhear us picking off other people’s children along the same lines (‘What a thickhead that kid is’; ‘She’s a born winner’), we are sending them a dangerous message. We are teaching them that ability is a ‘fixed’ characteristic that you’ve either got or you haven’t got.
Kids who have been taught this type of ‘fixed’ mindset are often frightened to fail, because, if success means you are smart, then failure means you are dumb. So they avoid challenges and resent negative feedback.
Some of the most academically robust work in this area has been carried out by Professor Carol Dweck, a long-time critic of the ‘you’re special’ approach. It’s all about mindset, she says.
The word ‘mindset’ describes our basic psychological ‘stance’: the lens through which we look at the world. Are you a ‘glass-half-empty’ person? If so, then you have a broadly pessimistic, ‘see-the-problems-wherever-possible’ mindset that negates the positive side of the equation. Our mindset influences what we see, how we interpret it and, crucially, how we respond to the world.
As children develop, the numerous ways in which we interact with them, encouraging them here, discouraging them there, quietly construct a mindset that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. So, says Dweck, we need to pay attention to the messages we send when we say things like, ‘You learnt that so quickly; you’re clever!’; ‘Wow, just look at those sums! We have among us, ladies and gentleman, Einstein in the making!’; ‘Just look at that painting; Is this the next Michelangelo or what?’
When we talk like this, what our children hear is, ‘If I don’t learn this quickly, I’m not clever; I’m a thickhead!’; ‘If I don’t get A* the next time round, I won’t be like Einstein, so I’d better not attempt anything too hard’; ‘If it goes wrong that won’t be very special! So better just keep things simple . . . ’
I once attended a conference in the Swiss Alps and stayed on for a couple of days’ skiing. I was lucky to have there a group of about seven or eight friends with whom I’d skied after previous conferences. We pretty much knew one another’s ‘level’ and could get ourselves round the mountains at about the same rate. Allowing for the occasional mini- disaster, our dignity was generally preserved and our egos left intact.
One afternoon we were taking a well-earned rest at the head of a new run, when a very keen-looking group of experts gracefully zigzagged their way through the deep virgin powder above us and came to a rest alongside. I recognized a good friend of mine among them, along with several other conference attendees. ‘Hey, come and join us, Glynn,’ my friend said. ‘We’ve got a guide and we’re heading off-piste.’ I thought for half a micro-second before politely declining the offer. As the élite skiers went on their way, a member of our group observed, ‘Glynn would rather be the best in this group than Mr Average in that . . . ’ Ouch.
He was right. And something similar happens when we induce what Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets in our children about being ‘special’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘smart’. It encourages them to avoid challenges that might compromise the view they have formed about their abilities, and where they fit into the scheme of things.
Dweck believes this approach has produced a generation of young people with fixed mindsets who can’t get through the day without an award, and who expect success because they are special, not because they’ve worked hard. Kids like this tend to avoid opportunities to learn, in case they may make mistakes and, when they do make mistakes, rather than correct them, they will often try to hide them. They don’t believe they have to make the effort either, believing that ability comes with success guaranteed. ‘This is one of the worst beliefs that students can hold,’ concludes Dweck.
Dweck has validated her findings with some fascinating studies. In one of them she set a group of pupils a fairly easy task and then coached their teachers to praise half of them for their intrinsic ability (‘You must be smart at these problems, brilliant’), and the other half for their efforts (‘You must have worked hard at these problems, well done’). Dweck’s team then asked the subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as: ‘Your intelligence is something basic about you that can’t really change’ or ‘You are either smart or you’re not; you’ve got it or you haven’t.’
Students who had been praised for their intelligence in a ‘you’ve-got-natural-ability’ sort of way were much more likely to agree with the fixed-mindset statements, in contrast to children praised for the effort they had put in. Similarly, children praised for their intelligence, when asked to define what they meant by intelligence, described it in terms of inflexible ability, whereas those praised for effort focused on skills and knowledge and the need to keep learning.
In other words, when we praise ability, we strengthen fixed mindsets, but praising effort promotes ‘growth’ mindsets. So it’s this ‘growth mindset’ that we need to be encouraging in our children.
But here’s the compelling part of this research. The students were now offered a challenging task that would teach them some new skills or a dead-easy task that would guarantee a near perfect mark. The students who had been praised for effort– those cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ – sought out opportunities to learn and plumped for the more challenging tasks. Most of those praised for their intrinsic intelligence and ability, on the other hand, opted for the easy task.
The bottom line of these kinds of experiment is that Dweck advocates giving our children and students ‘process’ praise, rather than ‘ability’ or ‘status’ praise. Process praising highlights engagement, strategizing and persevering. You shift the focus from who they are to what they do: ‘You really studied for your test, and your improvement shows it. Great – keep going’; ‘You read the material over, then tested yourself on it. That really worked! Well done’; ‘I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies until you finally got it.’ For students who get it without even trying, Dweck says, ‘All right, that was too easy for you; let’s now do something more challenging that you can really learn from.’
But what about children who work hard and still don’t do well? Say something such as, ‘I like the effort you put in. Let’s work together to try to work out what you don’t understand.’ Or alternatively, you can try something like, ‘We all learn at different speeds. It may take more time for you to catch on to this, but if you keep working at it, you will.’
Of course, it isn’t easy to disentangle process from ability entirely. At some point a student has to come to terms with the fit between her particular strengths and the task in hand. But the point is that praise and admiration are focused on the effort, not the individual. Kids shouldn’t necessarily believe that anyone can become an Einstein or a Usain Bolt, but they should believe that even they had to put in years of effort and hard work to become who they were.