As parents, we all learn that we should praise our children. We are told to find as many opportunities as possible to praise our children and to be generous with our praise, so that our children feel good, perform well and learn better. Most of us, never question that advice, but should we? Should we think twice when or how to praise them? There is something called the ‘praise paradox’ and many studies now show that the way we praise our children can have a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing.
Praise can be defined based on two criteria: what is being praised, and how much it is being praised. We can praise someone’s abilities (“You are so clever!”), or we can praise their efforts (“You have worked hard on this!”). We can give appropriate praise (“You did very well this time!”) or inflated praise (“This is your best work ever!”). Each type of praise will have a different impact on someone’s self-esteem and future motivation levels.
That’s where the praise paradox comes from. Parents think that it’s better to praise a child based on their abilities “You’re smart’ or even inflate their praise “That’s incredibly beautiful’. Paradoxically, such praise can lower children’s motivation and feelings of self-worth in the face of setbacks (e.g., when they struggle or fail).
Praise paradox is even a bigger reality when praising young girls. Telling young girls ‘you are so clever’ or ‘you have a perfect behavior’ can actually affect their confidence making them develop a fixed mindset and become less resilient.
Research shows that the majority of girls, -particularly- have a set mindset, tending to think that abilities are fixed, and that people are born with a certain talent or ability, and some aren’t. Usually, girls believe their abilities are distinctive and unchangeable, while boys believe they can work hard and practice to develop their abilities. The kinds of praise and feedback children receive from parents and teachers is believed to play a major role in this difference in attitude.
Girls developmentally can display self-control earlier and are better to follow instructions, so early on they will receive praise like ‘you are clever’ or ‘you are such a good student’, making them subconsciously understand that cleverness, goodness and smartness are qualities you either possess or not. On the other hand, boys, who often lose focus or misbehave, are frequently told to ‘pay attention a bit more to learn this’ or ‘try a bit harder to get it right’ which teaches them that by trying harder they will succeed. From a young age, this difference in feedback teaches both groups the subtle message of what it means when they encounter something difficult: boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder and girls as a sign that they aren’t good enough.
A child’s willingness to keep trying on a challenging task relates to the praise we give them. When the praise is person-specific like ‘you are smart at this’ the next time they will struggle they will think they are not and stop trying. That is one of the reasons why girls don’t stay engaged in STEM given that these subjects are more challenging and process specific. The key is to help girls develop a growth mindset by praising the process they engage in which will foster resilience and determination that helps them try harder even if they encounter challenges.
One hidden danger for parents and teachers is to make sure that when they are praising the process, they aren’t focusing just on the effort but showing how the child’s effort led to success or to improving the learning process. If we praise children but they know -since they always know- they aren’t making any progress, it’s like telling them we think they can’t do any better. Children need to know that when they are stuck, they don’t need just to try harder by using the same ineffective approaches, but they need to know when to ask for help and find creative ways of using available resources.
Taking the focus off perfection, encouraging them to take risks, ask questions, keep trying and trying new challenges can be achieved by praising girls for their effort and determination. This can have a positive effect in all their life, not just their childhood.
Growth mindset praise examples
Below, you can find growth mindset praise examples to try with your children or class:
- Did you work as hard as you could have? Explain what strategies you can use to improve?
- Don’t worry if you make a mistake. Look at the improvements you have already made.
- Your understanding is growing all the time. Using different strategies is helping you make new discoveries. Well done!
- You kept going even when it was hard. That means your brain is growing.
- I liked how you took a risk to find the solution.
- You persevered, and I can see your understanding is growing.
- Keep practicing, I see significant improvements.
- You should be so proud of your effort. It shows in your work.
- I see you are putting in a lot of effort to achieve your best work.
- I like how you used different strategies to figure out how to complete the task.
- I can see all your hard work has made a difference. What could you do next to challenge yourself?
- You have mastered ________. You should be proud of all your hard work.
- What did you learn from working through this task?
- Are you proud of your work? What could you do to make it better?