After a recent school conference, I felt I needed some insight as to why my “gifted” child age 8, was, “underperforming and under-motivated”.  I had tried many of my Positive Discipline techniques to the best of my ability and yet she continued to apply very little effort into much of her school work. On a colleague’s recommendation, I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck and what I read completely changed my view of my daughter’s behavior.

In the book the author quotes a number of studies whereby children who are regularly praised for their ability, i.e. “You’re so talented, you’re gifted, you’re so smart, you’re a good girl, etc. actually develop an aversion towards risk-taking and towards pushing themselves through a challenging situation.    It’s called a fixed mindset and students with this mindset believe that their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits rather than something that can be grown.  They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.  And I believe this is my child’s mindset.

You may think, but shouldn’t praise lift a child up?  Shouldn’t we be giving them positive reinforcement as we have been told over and over?  Well, here is what the studies show:  A child who is regularly praised for his ability begins to fear failure and an exposure of their “flaws”.  They don’t want to be put into situations where they might be taken down from their “throne” per se.  (Example:  My daughter didn’t turn in some late homework in spite of the fact that she did it.  When I asked her why, she said she was too embarrassed.  I interpret this as her not wanting to expose her “flaws.”)

In a different world, the goal would be for kids to develop a growth mindset.  What this means in a nutshell is that they form a belief that, with effort and hard work they can accomplish almost anything.  That if they persevere, and view life as “what can I learn from this experience?” vs. “I have to be the best”, they can be wildly successful and happy.

So how do we begin to move a child from one mindset to another?   While it may seem as if completely eliminating praise might be the answer, it is not. I think it would be impossible for most parents, and, praise, in small doses is OK.  The key is to work on encouraging the child, their process and their efforts.  Children who are supported & encouraged for their efforts begin to feel more confident in themselves and realize that part of the journey is exploration not perfection.  Here are some examples of encouraging vs. praising statements:

Encouraging Statements– (about the child, their process and effort)

“Thank you.”, “How do you feel about ___?” “You really worked hard on that.”, “Tell me about that.”, “That must have been difficult.”, “You must be proud.”

Praise Statements– (about the adult, the product and the result.)

“Good girl!”, “I’m impressed”, “Excellent job”, “I really like it”, “You’re better than that!”, “I’m proud of you.”

Can you detect the difference?

While I teach about encouragement and praise in my classes, my view of the importance of encouragement has grown.  What I have learned is that encouragement is the key to how children view their sense of capability.   So, my goal with U is to encourage her into a change of mindset, to convey to her that, with hard work, she can achieve anything she wants and to help her develop the skills that she needs to get there.

Hope it helps, Paige

This article was first published in COMPASS Positive Discipline E-Zine for families. If you enjoyed this post, sign up to receive the newest issue of COMPASS with 10 more helpful parenting posts like this one here.