Did you know there’s a right way and a wrong way to praise a child?
It turns out that the type of praise we use could either make or break our children. Therefore, as positive moms, we must learn how to praise a child. We want to learn the right way to praise them so we can foster a love of learning, a strong work ethic, and resilience in the face of failure.
Today, we’re going to chat about the best way to praise a child, the kind of praise that leads to a fixed mindset. We’ll also discuss how grit and a growth mindset are related and practical ways to help our children enjoy the benefits of a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory
Psychologist Carol Dweck is globally known for her deep body of research on motivation and her mindset theory. Dr. Dweck is an American psychologist and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In addition, she holds the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professorship of Psychology at Stanford University.
Dr. Dweck studied thousands of young learners and their attitudes and behaviors related to failure. This led her to discover and coin two basic concepts: the fixed mindset and growth mindset, which explain how what we believe about learning and intelligence shapes achievement.
People with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, abilities, skills, or talents determine success. In the fixed mindset, achievement is the product of an innate ability, rather than practice or effort. They believe that talent and intelligence are fixed traits that cannot be developed, improved, or changed over time.
People with a fixed mindset tend to avoid difficult situations or difficult tasks because are afraid that they will disappoint their parents, teachers, coaches, etc. If the child fails, they link their failure with their worth and tend to crumble in the face of setbacks.
The term growth mindset refers to the subconscious belief that intelligence, talents, skills, and ability they might possess can be developed. This belief and attitude is backed by neuroplasticity, which tells us that our brains can change, especially in response to learning or experience.
People with a growth mindset believe that they can get better, become smarter, and improve their skills, so they put a strong effort into what they do.
People who have a growth mindset have greater motivation to:
- try a new skill
- embrace challenging tasks or new challenges
- set goals that are out of their comfort zone
- try different strategies to solve a difficult problem
- fare better in the face of adversity
Kids who have a growth mindset know that failure is part of the learning process – and this leads to greater grit.
Angela Duckworth’s research on Grit
American psychologist, Dr. Angela Duckworth has shared important findings in research about grit. She’s a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016). Her definition of grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.”
She worked in schools, colleges, a military academy, and multiple children’s spelling bee contests. Her goal was to measure the study participants’ psychological profiles and determine who would be successful and who would not. The results of her research proved that grit is an important determining factor for success. In fact, grit proved to be the main measurable personality trait that could indeed predict future success or future failure.
Dr. Ducksworth tells us that “grittier” individuals achieve more academically and professionally. And it makes sense, right? These kids have an intrinsic motivation to grow and put more deliberate effort into what they want to achieve.
The Link Between Mindset, Grit, and Praise
So now that we covered the growth mindset and how it leads to grit, we will agree that we all want that, right?
However, when we praise our children, we have learned to encourage a fixed mindset.
In her 1999 study, Dr. Dweck discovered that children who are praised for an innate ability, quality, or trait that does not require effort (such as beauty, talent, or intelligence) adopt a fixed mindset.
These children tend to:
- reject effort
- avoid failure
- quit sooner
- become fearful of disappointing others or not meeting the high standards or expectations of others
- want to people please
- cheat or use deception to receive positive feedback
For example, when you tell your child: “you are a natural,” they feel like they don’t need to do hard work.
When a child is labeled “smart,” “intelligent,” or “talented,” when they get good grades, for example, they begin to link their self-worth to that trait. They fear getting low test scores or even receiving constructive feedback because that will mean they are no longer good enough.
However, when you praise the process a child used, the effort they put in, the strategy they followed, their problem-solving skills, or the persistence they demonstrated when completing a task or practicing a craft, you are blessing them with the power of a growth mindset.
These children will associate higher grades with hard work, and attribute their failure as a flaw, rather than a lack of effort. Using this type of encouragement, rather than generic praise helps us raise resilient kids who will be grittier and, therefore, more successful.
The Self-esteem Movement
So is it wrong to praise our children? And how did we become so misguided?
It all began in the 1970s, in the United States, after Canadian–American psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published his book “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” (1969). The premise that self-esteem is vital to success was adopted by a lot of parents, teachers, and coaches.
Many of us grew up without praise from the adults in our lives. In fact, many of us grew up with over-critical parents!
We don’t want our children to suffer from low self-esteem, negative thoughts, and negative self-talk like we have. So lots of parents started showering kids with words of praise to foster positive self-talk, a positive attitude, and a positive outlook in life.
Psychologists agree that words of praise do help kids in boosting their self-confidence, however, this doesn’t lead to a better character or better results.
Praise works to bolster self-esteem… until a child is presented with a challenging situation… until a child experiences failure.
So our focus on praising and our tendency to overpraise proves to be counterproductive.
Over 75 Wrong Ways to Praise A Child
Let’s talk about the general praise that gets us all “in trouble.” These are phrases we all use. Many of us overuse them.
Overpraising can lead to self-centeredness, pressure to perform, and to link that performance to happiness, or even love. It can also devaluate praise and, therefore, lessen your credibility in the eyes of your child.
So let’s avoid these phrases and words when praising our children:
You’re a superstar!
Good for you!
You’re a shining star!
Way to go!
You’re catching on!
What an imagination!
Now you’ve got it!
You’re on top of it!
You are responsible!
You’re so strong!
You’re a genius!
You are fun!
You’re a good friend!
This is first-rate!
You’re a winner!
You’re a real trooper!
You’re a good boy/girl!
You’re so creative!
You’re a joy!
You’re a treasure!
It couldn’t be better!
You’ve outdone yourself!
You’re the best!
You’re a great example to others!
You’re the greatest!
You’re super fast!
You’ve got what it takes!
You’re a champ!
Whew! What a long list.
What other phrases can you add?
You might have noticed what these positive words and positive phrases all have in common:
- Praising a trait, which leads to a fixed mindset
- Generic (vague about the behavior that is being praised)
- Using comparison or competition
- Unwarranted or unnecessary
- Excessive or over the top
I don’t know if it’s just me, but as I compiled this list, I couldn’t help but think “Man, I would have given anything to hear any of these phrases when I was growing up!”
Am I alone in this?
The point – and the good news- is that there is a right way to praise in a way that works.
Now that we’ve covered the wrong ways, let’s talk about the right ways to do it. This will give our kids that feeling we all wanted, while also developing a mindset that will set them up for success.
How to praise your child for grit and a growth mindset
Praising a child the right way can go a long way in their academic achievement and overall success.
The truth is that praise can actually be an effective tool to teach character, grit, and a growth mindset!
Here are some guidelines that can help you offer mindful praise to your child:
- Use your child’s name
- Be specific about the behavior you are pleased with. When your child knows what you’re applauding, your child is more likely to repeat that behavior.
- Give your children your full attention when you are praising them
- Make eye contact with your child as you praise
- Smile or use a loving gesture (a high-five, a thumbs-up, a pat on the back)
- Focus on the process, not the outcome (not how well they did, but how much effort they put in)
- Choose your words wisely
The best way to praise your child
The most effective ways to praise a child are descriptive praise and appreciative praise.
I’m going to share my definition of these two and provide a few examples, using age-appropriate chores.
Descriptive praise is a way of giving encouragement to a child, outlining a specific behavior the parent
observed. In other words, you tell the child exactly what you liked about what they’ve done well.
Descriptive praise is a valuable tool in encouraging a growth mindset and a great way to promote grit.
1 – 2-YEAR-OLDS
- I’m so happy you put all your toys away! Look at that full toybox!
- I’m so pleased to see all your effort in wiping up that spill and making sure this area is nice and clean.
- I’m so glad you put the book back on the bookcase after you read it and that you’re taking care of all your books.
3 – 6-YEAR-OLDS
- I’m so pleased with the way you’ve completed all your assignments on time. You’ve really earned this school grade.
- It makes me so happy to see how selflessly you give to your friends, just like when you shared your toy with that friend this morning.
- I’m so glad when I watch you fix yourself a bowl of cereal and you keep everything tidy in the kitchen.
7 – 11-YEAR-OLDS
- I’m so pleased with how you swept the floor and how clean it looks now!
- I’m so pleased with the way you put away the groceries. Everything is in its place and it looks so organized!
- I’m so glad you washed all those dishes and I really like the efficient way in which you loaded the dishwasher. That’s a great method!
12 – 17-YEAR-OLDS
- I’m so happy with how you’ve put so much effort to improve how you mow the lawn!
- I’m so pleased that you took out the trash bins without me asking this morning!
- I’m so grateful that you babysat your younger sibling while I went grocery shopping this afternoon!
Appreciative Praise is a way of giving a child appreciation in a way that highlights and emphasizes how their specific behavior affects the parent or any others.
1 – 2-YEAR-OLDS
- You put your dirty clothes in the hamper. That helps mama so much!
- I saw you put your shoes on the shoe rack. Now our room is nicer for the whole family.
- You volunteered to say the prayer. Now our food is blessed by God and it will be good for our bodies!
3 – 6-YEAR-OLDS
- You made your bed this morning and I had a smile on my face all day because of that!
- You cleared the table after your meal. What a great example you are setting for your younger siblings.
- You did all the dusting I asked you to. That makes such a difference to me because I have so much on my plate right now.
7 – 11-YEAR-OLDS
- You folded and put away the laundry all by yourself today. It’s a relief for me because I have been extremely tired.
- You made yourself breakfast today! Now I don’t have to rush us out the door and we can both have a relaxing drive to school.
- You chose to have such a great attitude when I asked you to help prepare dinner. It gave me such peace and pride and it really set a loving tone for our night together as a family.
12 – 17-YEAR-OLDS
- You really obeyed every traffic sign and law during our drive today. Now I can be confident that you’re a responsible driver who keeps yourself and everyone else safe on the road.
- You go above and beyond caring for our pets. She definitely knows she’s loved and it helps me not have to worry about it.
- You put so much effort into passing your ACT test. That gives me confidence and peace of mind that you’ll keep this work ethic in college.
Praise On, Positive MOM
General, empty, generic praise, is one of those old habits we need to ditch. It’s a very simple shift that can impact our children in every area of life and in each of their long-term goals.
And, with that being said, it’s all about the growth mindset, right?
So next time you and I fail at appreciative praise or descriptive praise and use general praise, it’s a good idea to remember the power of the word YET. This simple word reminds us all that we are all learning! No perfect score is needed, here.
Let’s give ourselves grace and keep at it until we master it.
Now that you know how to praise a child the right way, are you inspired to get started? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Duckworth, A. (2023). About Angela, https://angeladuckworth.com/about-angela/
Branden, N. (1969). The Psychology of Self-Esteem: A New Concept of Mans Psychological Nature. Nash Publishing.