Good Job! You Are Raising a Praise Junkie
It's report card time, which means echoes of "Good job!" and "You are so smart!" are echoing through the neighbourhood.
But what if telling your kid they are smart actually produces the inverse result to what you are aiming for? Because that is what the research is saying - that telling kids they are smart and praising them makes them less likely to try new things, less likely to work hard, and more dependent on external motivation. In fact, the praise you are handing out daily seems like the right thing to do but you may be turning your kids into praise junkies.
Don't I know it.
I am a praise junkie. I was labelled the smart girl my whole life (less so now). I believed that if I couldn't master something quickly than why would I bother putting any energy into it and risk showing that I may not be as smart as people thought. That's the thing with labels - the secret thought of every label-wearing person is that the label will be lost in a nanosecond.
As parenting coach Beverly Cathcart-Ross pointed out on a teleconference called the Perils of Praise, a focus on innate intelligence gives a kid a feeling of a lack of control, but a focus on effort gives a kid a sense of control.
So instead of praising your kid for their obvious brilliance, you encourage them by noting their effort. Encouragement is not judgemental and it takes the focus away from the result. So instead of, "Wow, Emma, good work in English, you are so good at reading!" It would be, "Wow, Emma I can see that you have been working hard in math. And your love of reading really shines through."
See how I snuck in the math comment? I was notoriously bad at math and I gave up on it early. But what if my effort in that subject had been noted and encouraged instead of just a disappointed head shake? What if my effort was noted in all subjects instead of the ones I had a natural inclination for?
It's not easy encouraging and not praising. Your kids' art is an easy example. You know how you want to say "that's beautiful!" and "you are a great artist!"? Praise junkie in the making.
Instead try: "Wow, what a picture! I can see how hard you worked on the drawing five fingers on that person" or "There is a lot of stuff going on, tell me about your picture!" Notice how the encouragement draws the child into a conversation about their work, and how you actually have to pay attention to the work so you can talk about it? That's because encouragement is about the child, not about you. It sets up self-motivation, not external motivation.
But encouragement is hard. Saying, "You are great!" is a lot easier than saying something creative that is specific to the situation. Beverly gave us some examples to help us develop our encouragement skills. (You can download the call here.)
Describe the situation: "I see a kid who put on his own pajamas! Give me 5!" This can even be used when a child is getting frustrated and is not succeeding in their task: "That's what I call perseverance!"
Appreciate the action: "I appreciate your patience when I was on the phone" or "I appreciate how fast you got ready today, it made it much easier to get out the door."
Empower: "I've seen you do things that are harder than this" and "I remember when you had trouble writing the alphabet, but you learned. I have faith you will do this too."
Praise says to a kid: 'The end result is important' and they think: 'I can not change who I am'. Encouragement says to a kid: 'My performance will vary in life but my worth will not.' Isn't that a powerful statment? I wonder if it is too late for me? I think I can save my kids from their praise-junkie habits. I mean, I will work hard at saving them, even though it isn't easy.
Are you a praise junkie? Do you tell your kids that they are smart?