Modern American parents believe strongly in “self-esteem”, and that our job as parents is to protect our children’s self-esteem by praising them lavishly so they will “feel good about themselves”. But too often what we’re really doing is protecting our children from challenges and from the possibility of failure, so they never have a chance to develop true self-esteem. When parents put every scribble on the refrigerator, why work on drawing? When Dad confronts the coach to get more playing time, there’s no reason to work on basketball. If Mom is willing to argue with the teacher about grades, why study harder?
The message we’re really giving our kids when we do these things is that they aren’t good enough to make it on their own. Children develop true self-esteem when they meet challenges, master new skills, and earn appreciation from folks outside the family as well as from parents.
And you know what? It turns out that high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades in school or career outcomes in adulthood. The big problem is motivation – the drive to meet challenges with hard work. The kind of praise we give children has a huge effect on their ability to accept a challenge.
Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist with a strong research interest in motivation. Her research on school children has shown, time and again, that children who believe that intellectual skills are a gift – that those skills are what they are, and they can’t be changed or improved – lose motivation in the face of challenge. So when parents and teachers praise children for how smart they are, rather than for their effort, it backfires.
When children believe that they are “smart”, a set-back leads them to question their general ability – and they can’t tolerate that, so they avoid potential failure. As Dr. Dweck says, “when we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them is that is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” If they have to try hard, that only puts their general ability into question – it destroys their image as a smart kid. And since none of us can control our general ability, that’s the end of it. One of the reasons that kids cheat is that they fear the possibility of failure.
When children believe that working hard leads to success, they work harder and more effectively when faced with a challenge or a set-back – the challenge motivates them. Effort is under everyone’s control! And when parents and teachers give specific, focused praise, it lets children know what was effective so they can do it again.
Praise also has to be sincere – kids can spot false praise a mile away. There are studies that show that when a teacher praises a child, the other children assume that the praised child has low ability and needs encouragement! My children always told me that awards like “most improved” were actually an insult, because it just pointed out that the recipient was pretty bad to start with and maybe got a little better.
So what’s the take-away from this? Children are motivated by sincere, focused, specific praise – praise that tells them what they did that was effective, and that their efforts can lead to success. Praise that focuses on innate ability – “you’re so smart” – has the opposite effect! Children who learn that challenges can be overcome by effort are willing to put in that effort. Children who believe that they are “smart” learn to avoid potential failure in order to maintain that image.
On a personal level, I have tried to be intentional in using focused, specific praise when I’m working with a child: “I really like the way you are listening to the directions so carefully” or “It got hard there, but you just thought it through and kept on going” rather than “good job!” My experience is that children love the focused praise, and they try very hard to repeat whatever behavior I’ve praised.
- For two weeks, pay close attention to how you praise your children. Think about praising them in a specific, focused way: “I really appreciated how you set the table before I had to ask you” or “it was wonderful to watch you take turns without arguing when we played Candyland” rather than “good job” or “you’re such a good big brother”.
- Notice if the behaviors you praise increase in frequency – keep notes if you can.
- At the end of two weeks, assess the success of using specific praise rather than general praise. Do you notice a difference?
Here are two excellent books that discuss these ideas about self-esteem, praise, and motivation in more depth.
Nurture Shock (2009), by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential (2012), by Carol S. Dweck