the problem with praise



“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.”  Nietzsche

You should quite telling your kids how smart they are.  Really.  Misguided efforts to praise our kids for their intelligence and talent often leave them vulnerable to fear and failure, unmotivated and discouraged.

In article in Scientific American, Carol Dweck reviews 30 years of research indicating that kids who are constant praised for these things come to believe these traits are fixed and innate, often leaving them unable or unwilling to strive or thrive. As it turns out, it is possible to be too positive with our kids, at least as far as their giftedness is concerned.

Instead, we should focus on a “growth mind-set,” one that focuses on the process of success, one that involves effort and planning. Put simply, studies show that kids who were told they were smart avoided challenging assignments more than ones who were told they worked hard.

Consider, there are two views of intelligence, one that sees it as fixed and one that sees it as malleable, improved by education and hard work. You can see the conflict here. If I’m smart, this should be easy. If it is not, that proves I’m not smart. This is a self-defeating cycle, based on the idea that “smart” is a thing. And children who are told they are “smart” over and over again become fragile and defensive. (Being told too often that they are cute or talented is also dangerous, but not the focus here.)

On the other hand, what works better is praising a child for how hard they worked, what processes they used, or what mastery they demonstrated. I like the detail you included. I appreciate the way you reviewed that material. I’m impressed be the way you broke that down into its parts. I’m glad you stayed with it.

Of course for Christians, the opportunity to point our to kids to how the Lord helped them is equally important; reminding them that He gave strength, courage or insight is critical, and much too often unstated. It is, however, the beginning of wisdom. And our assurance of His help can take a lot of pressure off of them; we should praise Him more than we praise them.

Because where praise is about process, perseverance and providence, challenges are more welcome and work is more rewarding. In some sense, there really is an A for effort, in the grade book of life. And as parents, our own approach to solving problems is as important as what we say. What do they see when they watch us?

Challenges can be energizing. Or overwhelming. New skills can be learned. Or mocked. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Or barriers to success. Our kids are watching us, and need to know that we too can and do grow and learn. They need to know that attitude often trumps ability. We need to be careful about how we praise our kids. And what we praise them for.

None of us is all we can or should be. When we leave our kids with the impression that they are, we do them a disservice. We should teach them instead that hard can be fun, challenging can be rewarding, mistakes can be wonderful and persistence is positive. And beautiful.

We should say so.

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