It seems like it is common wisdom to praise our kids for things like their athletic skills, musical ability, intelligence, creativity, talent, etc. We want them to internalize all of our praise and have high self-esteem, right? Interestingly, the research does not bear this out. Praising kids for things that are not directly under their control, like intelligence, can backfire.
Sure, we can improve our cognitive abilities (to a fairly large extent) through our efforts. But when we praise our kids with statements such as “Wow! You are SO smart!”, we are not praising their efforts. We are praising an attribute as if it were a quality that is etched in stone.
Psychologists have devised a number of ingenious experiments to test the idea that praising kids with statements about attributes such as intelligence helps them have high self-esteem so that they can persevere when they encounter challenges. What they are finding is that when kids are praised as being “smart” , they are more likely to give up when encountering challenges. The psychologists hypothesize that such children are faced with a dilemma when they encounter these challenges. They say to themselves, “If I’m so smart, why am I having difficulties with this?” Rather than relinquishing the idea that they are smart, these children often give up more quickly.
In contrast, effort is something that is more directly under our control. Children who are praised for their effort and perseverance tend to want to keep working when they encounter challenges. The praise reinforces the children’s efforts, and these children also are more likely to experience the reward of succeeding in a challenging task. In effect, they get two rewards – the praise from the adult and the reward of completing a challenging task.
Ironically, children praised for their intelligence and other attributes with the goal of trying to increase their self-esteem are more likely to give up…which undermines their self-esteem. So, try to focus on praising your children’s efforts rather than trying to bolster their self-esteem through just telling them how smart or athletic they are. This helps them to learn to focus their energy on what they can most directly control…their effort.