How to Praise Kids Effectively
Praise is powerful. Not only does it make a child feel secure and confident, it can also foster growth mindset.
Growth mindset is an accepted theory of motivation and success. To quote ourselves (from our article on growth mindset, which you should totally read): “People with fixed mindsets believe intelligence, character and creativity are inherent and unchangeable traits, and their success affirms their inborn qualities. People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, believe these qualities can be built over time, that new knowledge can be learned, creativity developed, skills improved.”
As the article goes on to say, most of us would say we have growth mindsets — because of course you keep learning across a lifetime. But it’s not so simple. Fixed and growth mindsets are most apparent in how we react to adversity and failure, as well as success. And how we react to adversity and failure and success has its roots in what kind of praising we hear as children.
In other words, the secret to raising resilient, persevering children lies in how we praise them. (And it takes effect earlier than we think; research has found that kids’ mindsets, growth or fixed, start to appear as early as age three.) Praise is the tool with which growth mindset is built; without praise, kids have no reason to set goals and try to achieve them. Far from making kids soft or weak, praise, when done right, builds grit and perseverance.
But praise is so often done wrong – in a way that actually contributes to fixed mindset, rather than growth. Praise is about success, but also about failure; about outcome and effort, but also, as critically, about strategy. It involves making statements and asking questions. Here are the rules — courtesy of years of research by Carol Dweck, the mind behind mindset theory — to follow in order to praise kids in a way that will build a growth mindset.
How to praise kids right
Sure, there’s room for a generic, “This is beautiful!” when your kid hands you a drawing of a “fish” that looks more like an LSD-laced interpretation of an exploding sun. But praising with words like ‘good’ and ‘great’ are too vague; “You’re so good at this!” or “You’re so smart!” are bricks in the foundation of fixed mindset. (Even hearing adults talk about other people as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at skills can contribute to a fixed mindset in a child, so watch how you praise everyone.)
Being specific helps kids understand what they need to keep doing or try next time. Without this understanding, their concept of themselves is fixed. They think, “I’m a good friend, simply because I am,” rather than thinking, “Being a good friend means standing up for people when others are teasing them, like I did for Ajay.”
For the actual successes and behavior that matter to you and your kid, you need to be specific about what they’ve done that has led to their success or the behavior you want to see more of. Which brings us to…
Connect effort and strategy to outcome.
Let’s say your child is struggling to learn guitar. Telling them, “You’re so good at guitar!” or “I like how you’re practicing so hard,” isn’t as effective as praising them with, “You know, all that time you spent practicing scales has really paid off because that song is sounding so much better.” The first two messages of praise speak to innate outcome, or praise effort only.
The latter message of praise, however, identifies what effort the child made and, critically, how it contributed to achieving their goal. This sends the message that strategy + effort = success. It’s not enough to praise just one of these crucial elements – strategy without effort doesn’t lead anywhere; effort without strategy is just spinning wheels; and outcome alone is meaningless – you have to pull together all three as you praise.
But not every strategy is effective; the key to success isn’t necessarily to try, try again — it’s to try, try again with new and different strategies until we find one or more that bring us closer to mastery. Which brings us to…
Follow up on the failure.
Praising children is possibly more about failure than it is about success. When kids fail, it’s fine to reassure them, as long as you then shift toward helping them think about how. Asking a kid “What do you think you can work on to get the mark you want?” “How do you want to strengthen that skill?” “Do you think you need to study longer, or study differently?” is a critical part of praise.
Help kids look for ways to keep improving and help them develop strategies to do it; it instills the idea that failure isn’t permanent as long as you can think of another strategy to try.
When your kid comes home with a -20% on his biology project, going through the motions of right praise won’t mean much if your eyes and quivering voice are conveying they abysmal depths of your parental disappointment. Stay upbeat and go into problem-solving mode: “I like that you took on a challenging topic. What did you learn while you were doing it? What can you do differently next time?”
Be selective and intentional.
Throwing a parade for every attempt and every sneeze will undervalue the praise you offer for the efforts and achievements that really matter to you and your child.
As a bonus, you can supplement praise for kids and build their growth mindset by:
Sharing stories of struggle and failure.
Share stories of your own and others struggles and failure, so your kid knows it’s a natural part of life. Talk about what you and others did to overcome adversity, so they have templates to follow.
Modeling the growth mindset you want your kid to have.
If your child sees you giving up, talking about your own strengths and weaknesses in a ‘fixed’ way (‘Oh I could never do that; I’m not very good at it’) then they’ll pick up that fixed mindset no matter how you word your praise to them.