The RIGHT way to praise a kid.

When you are praising your kid’s school work, what do you say?

You will be tempted to tell them they’re “so smart,” or that they’re “really good at math.”  This is one of the worst things you can say.

“Smart” and “Talented” sound like fixed traits.  If your child internalizes these phrases they will think they are lucky to be smart, and “smart” will integrate itself into your child’s identity.  Being smart means learning easily.  And as long as the subjects continue to come easily the child will seem to have great self confidence.

But one day some subject won’t come easily.  One day the child who identifies himself as smart will struggle to understand something.  If being smart means learning easily, and this is hard, that must mean that everybody has been wrong and they’re not smart at all.  So to defend themselves they will avoid the challenge all together.

I did this.  I deliberately avoided doing homework, and did some minor grade sabotage.  At the time I thought it was about being lazy, but in hindsight I think this had something to do with it.  After all, if I didn’t put out any effort, then the poor grades didn’t reflect on my intelligence.  If I had tried, then my failure would’ve been devastating.

The way around this trap is to praise the work instead of the child.  Teach the child that the brain is like a muscle, the more you work it the stronger it gets.  Teach your kid to love the challenges, because that’s where the growth is.  Praise tenacity.  Praise effort.  Relate the ultimate success to the practice that got them there.

And for the record this is not my own touchy-feely theory.  It’s been shown that there’s a correlation between a student’s view of intelligence as intrinsic or incremental and long term outcomes.  It’s also been shown by experiment that if you teach kids struggling in math that the brain is like a muscle, they outperform a control group.  It’s been shown that paying kids to make good grades is LESS effective than paying them turn in their homework

  • Teach your kids that their intelligence isn’t fixed, that all skill and knowledge is built incrementally.
  • Love your kids unconditionally.
  • Don’t focus on outcomes.  Instead focus on the process and the outcomes will happen naturally.
  • Don’t praise them for what they are.  Instead praise them for what they DO.

Hat tip to Josh Waitzkin and his book “The Art of Learning.”

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