Language Plays Into Praising Your Child

Research shows that slight tweaks in the words you use to praise your child can mean the difference between long-lasting effects—or no effect at all.

Improving achievement

Illustration by Anke Weckmann

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Stanford University professor and author of Mindset, studies how our beliefs affect achievement. In one study, students who were given an IQ test were praised either for their intelligence or their effort. On subsequent tasks, the intelligence group was more likely to choose easier work and give up on hard work; scores dipped an average of 20 percent. The effort group was more likely to choose challenging work, enjoy it, and work longer; scores rose an average of 30 percent. Dweck attributes this to the fixed vs. growth mindsets the students developed from the praise they received.

Fixed mindset people believe that abilities and intelligence are innate. They are afraid to take risks for fear someone will discover they are not talented or smart. When they hit setbacks, they give up. Playing it safe limits the growth of their abilities. Fixed praise sounds like: Math is your thing. You are talented at art. Growth mindset people believe that the brain is malleable, achievement comes through effort, and abilities can be cultivated. They value learning and practice and persevere through challenges. They see setbacks as opportunities and value constructive criticism. They are more motivated and achieve greater success. Growth praise links the process to the outcome: Your hard work paid off with a jump in your grade. And when being constructive, say, What strategy could you use next time to better understand the material?

Mary Kay Fleming, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Mount St. Joseph University, says, “Do you want kids to learn that through their effort they are capable of improving their performance…or that at the moment of conception, some people got lucky and some people didn’t, and that wrote the script for the rest of their lives?”

Developing character

Research shows that if you want to improve character, you should praise the person, not the behavior. For example, say, You’re the kind of person who is generous, not, What you did was generous. Plus, nouns are more effective than verbs, like, Thank you for being a helper, not, Thank you for helping.

Fleming says, “We plant these seeds through our language choice with our kids, and that becomes their self-talk, and that changes their concept of themselves.”

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