My youngest daughter is one of the many young men and women graduating from college this year. Like so many others during the covid-19 pandemic, she transitions quietly from one phase of life to another. No pomp and circumstance. No announcing of her name before a crowd of people. No walking across a stage to be given a congratulatory handshake as she receives her diploma. No cap thrown into the air with her classmates. No gathering of family and friends to celebrate. Just a quiet step from one stage of life into another.
But, do not let the forced isolation of this year’s graduation fool you. We recognize your hard work. You have worked hard, and your hard work has paid off. You have achieved a milestone in your life. We recognize your success.
I ask you not to let this time pass by without taking a moment to reflect in the quietness. Reflect on the long nights you conquered and the seemingly impossible demands you met. Reflect on the knowledge you have gained and the life experiences from which you have learned. Reflect and celebrate the friends you made, the joys you shared, and the obstacles you have overcome. I think you will discover, like I did, that although you are graduating quietly, you are more like a lion than a mouse. Yes, more like a lion quietly prowling through the tall grasses of anxiety and confusion that distract the world from seeing your hard-earned success. A lion stealthily studying the current climate, confidently looking for just the right moment and the right angle from which to gain the best gain in the current environment. Muscles primed for the quest of life’s next stage as you crouch, kneading the ground under your feet to assure good footing. Quietly preparing and watching for the right moment to pounce at full throttle into the next phase of life. Ready to conquer. Ready to run. Yes, you are much more like a lion.
But for now, it is quiet. Don’t worry. Wait patiently. Reflect on your accomplishments. Continue looking ahead to survey the possible opportunities. They will come and you will go. We have confidence in you and your ability, a confidence born from watching you achieve so much already, a confidence undergirded by our pride in who you have become. Yes, we are proud of you. We may not be able to take you out to dinner or gather with friends and family to celebrate…we may not get the opportunity to applaud your success at a graduation ceremony…but, we are proud of you. We know you have worked hard. We watched you struggle with obstacles and overcome. We see you planning and waiting–patiently biding your time, itching to take that next leap. And we are as excited for your next step as you are. It will come. And when it does, you will leap. And through it all, we are behind you cheering you on. We are proud of you.
What can puzzles teach us about self-critical children and their parents? I must admit…that’s not a question I ever asked myself. However, researchers at the National University of Singapore did and boy am I glad. They followed 263 children for 5 years starting at 7-years-old. In the first year, the children were given puzzles to solve in a limited period of time. Their parents accompanied them and were told they could help if needed. The researchers’ objective was to watch whether the parent became intrusive and, if they did, how intrusive. An example of highly intrusive parenting would involve a parent taking the puzzle away from the child to reverse a mistake they had made. The researchers wanted to know whether the parent interfered with their child’s problem-solving opportunities or allowed their child to learn from mistakes. This puzzle assessment was repeated when the children were 8-, 9-, and 11-years-old. The researchers also tested the children for levels of self-criticalness and perfectionism. Guess what the research uncovered. You got it. Children who had highly intrusive parents engaged in more self-critical behavior and perfectionism. The children in this study who reported increased levels of self-critical behavior and perfectionism also reported more symptoms of depression and anxiety as the study progressed. Consider the progression suggested by this study. Parents intrude upon their children’s activities by interfering with their children’s independent problem-solving. This conveys an implicit message from parent to child that “you can’t solve your own problems; I have to step in to do it for you.” As a result, children never feel “good enough.” Although they feel inadequate, they also recognize their parents’ desire for perfection. As a result, even the smallest mistake leads the child to criticize themselves for not being “perfect,” for not “meeting standards.” This, in turn, increases the risk for depression and anxiety. I like the quote from the lead researcher: “Our findings indicate that in a society that emphasizes academic excellence…parents may set unrealistically high expectations on their children. As a result, a sizable segment of children may become fearful of making mistakes. Also, because they are supposed to be ‘perfect,’ they can become disinclined to admit failures and inadequacies and seek help when needed, further exacerbating their risk for emotional problems.”
So, what’s a parent to do? Here are 3 ideas.
Focus on your children’s efforts rather than the end results. Acknowledge your children’s efforts rather than comparing their results with someone else’s results. Effort produces success over time. So, focus on effort and nurture an excitement to try new things without fear of failure (which brings us to tip number 2).
Create an environment in which mistakes and temporary failures are opportunities for learning. Ask what your children learned rather than the final grade they earned. When they do poorly on a test or project, discuss what they did well before moving to discuss how to correct the areas in which they did poorly. Discuss what they learned from their mistakes and “flops.” In other words, turn failures, poor performances, and mistakes into opportunities to learn rather than opportunities to evaluate and blame. (Do Your Child a Favor: Love Mistakes)
Let your children struggle to find their own solution. Do not step in to “fix it” or “solve it” for them. Let them work at it. Let them pursue options they think of independently. You can ask some questions to spark their imaginative solutions, but don’t just them the solution. Rather than fix what they did wrong, ask they how they might fix it. When they get stuck, discuss possible ideas and the basis for those ideas. Nurture their ability to think and pursue solutions independently. (Read Do You Rob Your Teen of Victory? to learn more.)
Put these three practices in place and you will help raise children who pursue excellence without becoming self-critical and perfectionistic. And we learn all this because someone asked what puzzles can teach us about self-critical children and their parents!
How do children form a positive self-concept? How do they come to see themselves in a positive light? How do they develop confidence and learn to esteem themselves well? These questions arise in many a parent’s mind as they interact with and discipline their children. We want to help our children develop a persistent confidence in their abilities while not becoming arrogant. Sometimes we doubt ourselves. We wonder if we are really doing the right thing (at least I do!). We constantly search out practical advice for increasing our children’s self-confidence. Friends, family members, experts, books…we search them all to find reassurance that we are doing a good job and in hopes of finding the “magic bullet” to help our kids grow. Well, I don’t have a magic bullet, but I have found several practical ideas to help raise confident children.
Warm up. Develop a warm relationship with your children. Warm parents show an interest in their children’s activities. They share their children’s joys and excitements. Doing so makes their children feel noticed and valued. It increases their self-esteem. It contributes to their self-confidence. (For more on the impact of a warm relationship, read An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts)
Praise effort, not ability. Acknowledge your children’s effort and investment rather than just the end product. Let them know you see how hard they work to make things happen. This helps our children learn their effort impacts their world and their success comes through effort. It teaches them to value effort and notice the successes found in effort, even if the end result was not what they initially intended. Effort, as opposed to waiting for something to “fall in our laps,” leads to success. And, success builds self-confidence.(Build Your Child’s Success Mindset offers more tips.)
Do not overpraise. Our children need us to acknowledge their effort and appreciate their accomplishments, but overpraise will backfire. Excessive praise actually contributes to lower self-esteem. Overpraise can contribute to arrogance. Sometimes extremely positive, inflated praise can contribute to narcissism, a sense of personal grandiosity. Excessive praise can also set our children up to worry about falling short of the standards for which they have already received lavish amounts of praise. So, go ahead and appreciate achievements. Acknowledge accomplishments. Praise effort and investment. But don’t overdo it. Don’t overpraise. It just gets in the way of healthy self-confidence. (Read How to Ruin Your Child with Praise for more.)
Value failure. Treat failure as a time of learning rather than a catastrophe. Failure is simply an opportunity to learn what does not work and explore changes that can lead to a better result. I like Oprah’s quote, “Think like royalty. Royalty is not afraid to fail. Failure is another steppingstone to greatness” (I hope she’ll excuse my changing her use of the word “queen” to “royalty.” If not, I guess I’ll learn from the failure.) Confident people fail gracefully. Confident people know failure is not the end of the world. Confident people recognize failure as a signal for problem-solving, making changes, and moving toward “greatness.” (Do Your Child a Favor)
Give your children important tasks to complete. Let them have chores around the house. Chores and tasks build a sense of competence and competence contributes to confidence. (Chores: The Gift of Significance will explain even more.)
Model healthy confidence in your own life. Work to improve your self-confidence and your children will follow in your example. Value your failures and talk about what you learn from them. Acknowledge your achievements while focusing on the effort and investment that led to those achievements. Accept their acknowledgements of your success with a smile and a simple “thank you.” Maintain warm loving relationships, especially with your children. Children imitate those they see and admire. They become like those they imitate. Give them a self-confident parent they can look up to and imitate.
Put these six practical actions in place and your children will grow in confidence daily!
Optimism is not about wearing rose-colored glasses. Optimism is the muscle that focuses on “what I can do” rather than “what I cannot do.” It focuses on the importance of effort to grow and learn. It also realizes most difficulties are specific to a context and situation rather than “ruining everything.” Difficulties are temporary, not permanent. With this in mind, an optimistic person looks at a difficult situation or a failure and begins to explore what aspects of the situation they can influence. Then, they set about to exert their influence and produce a change. You can see why this muscle helps to prevent depression, increases perseverance, and promotes success. But, how can you nurture the muscle of optimism in your children? I’m glad you asked. Here are four practices that will help develop your children’s “optimistic muscles.”
Acknowledge effort and strategy rather than global traits. Telling our children they are “smart” or “gifted” leads to children who avoid a challenge so they do not lose their position as “smart” or “gifted.” Calling your children some global label, like “lazy” or “stupid,” contributes to them believing they cannot change. But, acknowledging effort communicates that success comes through effort, an important message. Acknowledging strategies (how your children go about reaching a goal) communicates that a momentary problem can often be overcome with a little strategically placed effort. This also opens the door to discuss alternative solutions when problems do arise. Children who know that effort and strategy produce positive ends learn to become optimistic children.
Describe specifics rather than end results when praising your children. This helps your children focus on the process, the strategies involved in reaching a goal. It communicates that even if the end result is not perfect, some parts of the process are good. They can be built upon to create a better end in the future. So describe choices made, actions taken, or obstacles overcome rather than looking only at the end result. The trophy becomes more meaningful when the choices, actions, and perseverance displayed in achieving it are acknowledged, recognized, and described. This also helps your children know they have the power to influence the end result (the product) by adjusting their actions and choices during the process.
Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. Mistakes do not “ruin everything.” Instead, they represent a “temporary setback,” an opportunity to learn what did not work in a particular time and specific context. Celebrate the mistake as an opportunity to learn. Why did it not work in this situation? Is there ever a situation in which it might not be a mistake? Was the mistake a matter of timing? When, if ever, might it be helpful? How could you do it differently to avoid the same mistake in the future? How could you correct the mistake now? Thomas Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will” (The actual quote was likely somewhat different but making the same point. Read this from Quote Investigator to learn the documented quote.) Children who realize that mistakes are learning experiences are more likely to accept challenges, persist longer, and be more optimistic about their efforts. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities.
Try new things. Go new places. Experience new adventures. Sure, you might have some let downs, but they’re just learning experiences. You’ll also enjoy many exciting adventures. Your children will learn they can overcome obstacles that arise. Their confidence will grow as they step out of their comfort zones and survive…even have fun and thrive.
Put these four practices into place and over time you will see your children’s optimism grow. They can flex those “muscles of optimism” and experience greater success in relationships and life!
She walked onto the stage with such poise. She calmly explained her song in a very articulate manner. Then, she performed the song beautifully. I sat among those in the crowed and listened. The performance was beautiful. Even more amazing to me was the confidence with which this 16-year-old girl presented herself. She appeared comfortable exposing herself to a crowd of potential critics. The whole experience made me think: How did this young girl learn such confidence? How can parents help their children gain confidence? How can we give our children the gift of confidence? As I pondered these questions, I thought of 6 ideas to help. I’m sure there are more, but here are six to start.
Give your children tasks that match their developmental ability. Do not expect your children to do more than they are developmentally ready to do. A 2-year-old will not act like an 8-year-old or an 8-year-old like a 16-year-old. Each child can only be themselves…and only act as mature as their developmental level allows. To give your children tasks that match their developmental level requires your careful observation so you can know where they “stand” developmentally. Then, give them tasks that match their developmental ability.
Challenge your children. This may sound contradictory to the first bullet, but it is not. Parents can give their children tasks that challenge them and fall within their developmental ability. On the other hand, expecting too little from your children sends an implicit message that they lack competence. Doing the task for them communicates a belief that they lack the ability to complete the task on their own. So, give your children tasks that present a challenge and offer guidance. Teach them what they do not know while letting them do what they can. This often means taking a somewhat “hands-off approach” while offering guidance and encouragement, in other words, doing a minimal intervention while acknowledging their progress. (For more read Good Parents Do Nothing!)
Allow mistakes. Mistakes help us learn. Taking time to acknowledge a mistake, explore what went wrong, and plan how to do it differently next time turns a mistake into a fantastic learning experience. Each mistake treated in this manner will help your children grow and add to their confidence. (For more read Do Your Child a Favor: LOVE Mistakes.)
Celebrate effort, not just achievement. Sure, achievement is great and needs to be recognized; but effort leads to achievement. When parents celebrate effort, their children choose more challenging tasks, persevere more in the face of obstacles, and ultimately, achieve more. Confidence grows. Celebrate effort! (For more read Build Your Child’s Success Mindset.)
Accept feelings. Minimizing, punishing, or ignoring feelings makes children feel as though they are unimportant. It communicates that “something is wrong with them” because they have unimportant or even bad feelings. Avoid responding to emotions with statements like “You’re OK” (negates the emotion and their experience), “You have nothing to be made about” (minimizes their feelings), or “I’ll give you something to cry about” (punishes them for feeling). Simply accept your children’s feelings. Help them label their feelings and teach them how to manage them as well. (For more on responding to emotions, read 6 Tips to Make Your Children’s Emotions Your Friend.)
Nurture dreams. Sure, some dreams are unlikely. So what? Your children’s dreams may change as they mature. In the meantime, your children’s dreams motivate their behavior and push them to achieve. As you nurture your children’s dreams, you communicate how much you value them and their dreams, believe in them and their capabilities. Nurture their dreams. (Read Grow Your Children’s Dreams for more.)
There they are—6 ways to give the gift of confidence to your children. What other ways do you suggest?
I remember hearing people telling me, “Think before you speak.” As a child and teen, I could avoid saying hurtful things, stupid things, and unnecessary things when I remembered to “think before speaking.” Unfortunately, I sometimes spoke before thinking…and then suffered the consequences. Well, that advice holds true for parents as well as children. Parents, we need to think before we speak. We need to think about what we say and how we say what we need to say. In fact, how we say what we say will influence how our children learn and grow. Let me offer some examples.
Instead of making general statements, be specific. Notice and acknowledge effort. Acknowledging effort encourages persistence in our children and sends the subtle message that hard work is important. For example, rather than making a general statement like “Great job,” say:
“That took a lot of patience.”
“I can tell you worked hard on that.”
“I really like the combination of colors (or “materials” or “details”) you chose.”
“That must have taken a lot of time and hard work to finish. You must be proud of it.”
Instead of asking an open-ended question offer choices. Choices teach our children they have power; they are active agents in their world. Choices encourage them to take ownership of their power and accept responsibility for their decisions. For example, rather than asking “What do you want for a snack?” say:
“You may have an apple or a cookie. Which do you prefer this time?”
“Would you prefer green beans or broccoli with dinner?”
“Do you want to wear your red shirt or your black shirt today?”
Instead of asking “Why?” or making a demand to “Stop” some inappropriate behavior, validate their emotions or desires. Validation communicates the value and importance of their emotions and desires. It helps our children recognize their worth. Instead of saying, “what’s wrong with you?” or “stop that,” try saying:
“You seem really sad. What’s going on?”
“You are really angry, aren’t you?”
“You really want playing with your Legos, don’t you?”
Instead of telling your children about the behavior you don’t want, describe an alternative behavior you do want. By offering alternative behaviors, we teach our children the behaviors we value. Rather than saying “Don’t talk to me like that” or a general “Be careful” or “For the last time, you can’t have…,” try saying:
“Be polite and use a calm voice please.”
“Use both hands when you pick up the pitcher, please.”
“Look at this fire truck. You can play with it instead of Tommy’s truck right now?”
Paying attention to how we say what we say does take some effort. It means paying attention to our words, thinking ahead to potential situations, and not speaking in anger. Although it takes some effort, you’ll love the benefit of watching your children grow and mature!
Behaviors and traits have consequences in our lives. Everyone knows that. That’s why we discipline and guide our children in developing traits and behaviors that will bring them the greatest success and happiness. Through discipline, we steer our children away from several negative traits, such as entitlement…and for good reason. Researchers have recently mapped out the pathway from entitlement…and it doesn’t end well. In fact, the pathway leading from entitlement begins with chronic disappointment…and goes downhill from there. (Read Entitlement May Lead to Chronic Disappointment for more) When a person believes themselves better and more deserving than others (entitled), they enter a spiral of habitual behavior leaving them “frustrated, unhappy and disappointed with life.”
First, entitlement creates feelings of disappointment. Entitled people have expectations that they deserve more than others. As a result, their expectations often remain unmet. After all, life is hard. In the words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” Entitlement leads to disappointment in response to these unmet expectations and life’s hard knocks.
Disappointment can lead to dissatisfaction and negative, even volatile, emotions like anger. Entitled people feel like they are not getting the good things they deserve, the good things to which they are entitled. Once again, “you can’t always get what you want….” In anger at not having their sense of entitlement satisfied, they lash out at others verbally or physically. Of course, this pushes people away. The entitled person may suffer the pain of rejection and isolation along with their disappointment.
To escape the pain of these negative emotions, entitled people reassure themselves of their specialness. They reinforce their feelings of superiority, bringing temporary relief from the disappointment and other negative emotions. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time until they return to step #1 and begin the cycle again.
As you can imagine, a sense of entitlement can make your children miserable; a sense of entitlement can make your family life miserable. Who wants to live in a home filled with entitled people constantly experiencing disappointment and anger in response to perceived unmet expectations of superiority and deserving? Not me. We want a family filled with non-entitled people. What can we do to limit a sense of entitlement in our families? Begin with the Rolling Stones by teaching, “You can’t always get what you want….” Then, add these three ideas into the mix:
Practice gratitude. It’s difficult to feel chronic disappointment while noticing all the good things people do around us. And, a grateful person gains the realization that other people and their contributions are important…maybe even more important than the “almighty me.” Begin practicing gratitude in your family by modeling it. Take time to notice what other family members do for you and your home. When you notice it, acknowledge it. Let “thank you” and “I appreciate your help” become common phrases in your household.
Recognize and reward humility. You can encourage humility by modeling it. One way to model humility is by expressing gratitude. You can also encourage humility by serving. Serve one another. Offer to get your spouse or child a drink when you go to the kitchen during commercials. Help clean the house. Willingly do the “dirty jobs” around the house with a smile. Ask for help when you need it. Allow others to serve by asking ask for help even when you don’t necessarily need it. Serve those outside the family as well. Feed the homeless. Visit a nursing home. Shovel the neighbor’s driveway. You get the idea. Gratitude and service contribute to humility. Humility negates entitlement.
Praise effort and hard work. Success and opportunity arise from hard work, not because we are entitled. Accomplishment and recognition result from effort, not our entitlement. Recognize your family members’ effort and acknowledge that effort. Even when that effort has not led to public reward, praise the effort. Let effort and hard work become its own reward.
These three practices will help your family learn the rest of the wisdom from the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you might just find, you get what you need!”
No, we do not want to raise self-critical children. We want to raise hard-working children who accept themselves and others. Unfortunately, we can easily slip into a style of parenting that promotes self-criticism and perfectionism in our children. How do parents unwittingly nurture self-criticism? Let me offer a couple examples.
Our child is working on a puzzle but keep trying to put the wrong piece in the wrong place at the wrong time. We jump in to take the wrong piece out and quickly replace it with the correct piece. In effect, we took over the puzzle for a short moment. We robbed our child of the chance to recognize their mistake, learn from it, and correct it on their own. We communicated they can’t do it on their own, they’re never good enough. We’ve nurtured a self-critical tendency toward anything less than perfect.
Our child starts to color their tree pink. In our desire to teach, we jump in to correct. We quickly take the pink crayon from them and give them a green one while explaining, “Look, those trees are green.” We intruded upon our child’s imaginative perception. We squelched their creativity at that moment and limited the way they can look at the world to align only with our perspective or the common perspective. We also sparked a moment of doubt about their decisions and aroused a fear of being different. We’ve nurtured a self-critical attitude toward any uniqueness in their lives and art.
Our teen wants to take an extra music or art class. We jump in to redirect them to something more useful, a math or science class for example. We explain the necessity of math and science as well as the frivolity of music or art. After all, they have to graduate from high school and find a well-paying career. Eventually, they succumb to our nagging and begrudgingly take a math class. We have subtly taken over their schedule and intruded upon their dreams. We’ve communicated their inability to make wise choices, explore options, have multiple interests, and even learn from mistakes. We’ve nurtured a self-critical tendency toward interests and decisions that don’t “fit the mold.”
In each of these scenarios well-meaning parents intruded upon their child’s decision and activity. They took over an experiment, a creative expression, a self-exploring decision. They left their child no choice but to “do it” the way their parent wanted it done. They put excessive pressure on their child to comply with their desire and their needs. When parents intrude upon their children’s lives, children become more likely to exhibit an overly self-critical nature and maladaptive perfectionism. What can a parent do instead?
Focus on effort, NOT achievement. Recognize your child’s effort in everything they do.
Acknowledge specifics of what your child has done right, or the things you admire, BEFORE discussing mistakes.
Allow your child to experiment “outside the box.” Encourage creativity and uniqueness. Let them do things “their way” even if it takes longer, is not the traditional method, or is different than the way you would do it. You might explain how you do it, but allow them to try their unique approach as well.
Let your child struggle with mistakes and choices. Allow them time to learn from their mistakes. While they struggle, do not say “I told you so” or “If you would have listened….”
Practice these four tips and you can help your children develop a sense of adventure and joy in exploring, learning, and growing.
We all want our children to excel. We may want our children to excel in different areas (sports, academics, music, theatre, dance, socialization, etc.), but we all want them to excel. Nobody wants to point out their children and say, “Yes, my children are mediocre at best.” No, we want our children to work hard and find success. We want them to excel. Unfortunately, we often engage in behavior that limits their ability to excel. We increase our demands and expectations, raising our children’s stress level and fear of failure. Instead of excelling, they succumb to the pressure and fall short. They start to resist or even avoid hard work and so miss out on success. As parents we can help build an environment to encourage our children to excel. Here are some ways to do so.
Maintain healthy expectations. Do not expect your children to do more than they are developmentally ready to do. Do not expect them perform above their physical capabilities. On the other hand, do not lower your expectations to make it easy for your children. Children need a realistic challenge to work toward in order to excel. Become a student of your children. Create healthy and realistic yet challenging expectations for their lives.
Focus on effort. Instill the value of hard work and effort above achievement and performance. If you focus on achievement and “end products,” your children will believe that success result from natural talent alone. They will avoid difficult tasks for fear that failure reflects a lack of natural ability. Instead, attribute success and failure to effort, not ability. Teach your children that effort and hard work lay the groundwork for achievement. When your children learn to value effort and hard work, they can embrace challenges, overcome obstacles, and learn from mistakes…all of which promote your children’s ability to excel.
Maintain a loving relationship with your children, but don’t forget to maintain firm limits Don’t be afraid to discipline your children. Teach them to finish what they start and to think about the cost (in terms of time investment, energy, school requirements, and desired downtime) of an activity before starting. Do not step in to fix problems that arise. Encourage your children to seek a solution and to persist in the face of obstacles. Let them put in the effort to work through the difficulty. Then appreciate that effort.
Make it part of your family life. Build the area in which you want your children to excel into the fabric of your home. Make the skills applicable to real life. Become a learner in that area yourself. Converse with your children about topics related to that area. Integrate it into your daily life. Enjoy it together. Make it a topic of conversation and interaction. Learn to have fun with it—laughing, playing, competing, debating, etc. Make it fun.
Allow your children to be average! Our children will not excel in every facet of life. They are not in our lives to fulfill our dreams. They will find their greatest joy when they find those areas that interest them. They will grow into happy adults as and invest their energy and time in areas fascinating to them. Allow them to do so. You might just discover that they excel in what is truly important in life—kindness, generosity, perseverance, etc.
These five actions will open the door for your children to excel. They take time and thought to implement successfully, but your children will benefit from your efforts. You will likely fall short at times…several times if you are like me. We all make mistakes. Take the time to learn from your mistakes and re-open the door. Each time you do, you teach your children important lessons and help them excel in life.
What should parents do when their children do something well? Praise them, of course! Praise them with statements like: “You are so smart.” “That is a beautiful picture.” “Good job cleaning your room.” Well…at least common knowledge on the street says to praise a job well done. However, praise does have a dark side. Let me give you three examples from the dark side of praise.
When we praise our children by attributing their success to some natural ability, we create an environment primed for underachievement! In one study, two groups of students were praised for completing a puzzle. One group was praised for their natural ability–“You are really smart.” The other group was praised for their effort—”You worked hard on that puzzle.” Sometime later, both groups were given the opportunity to choose another puzzle to complete: a hard puzzle or an easy puzzle. The children who had been praised for their natural ability overwhelmingly chose the easy puzzle while those children praised for their effort choose the harder, more challenging, puzzle. Attributing our children’s success to natural ability means they have no power to influence their success. It is natural to them or they cannot do it. And, to fail means “my ability is limited…and so am I.” A person cannot change what they have no power over. Attributing success to effort, on the other hand, gives our children a realistic measure of control. They can accept a challenge because they believe that exerting more effort will bring greater success.
Another study found that students quickly identified insincere praise. Students learned that praise from their teacher actually indicated a student’s limited ability. They learned their teachers tended to praise the poorer students, those with less ability, in an effort to encourage them to perform better. In other words, students recognize blarney when they hear it…and so will our kids!
One other aspect of the dark side of praise is seen in excessive praise. When we overpraise our children, they learn to work only for the praise. They may also seek constant reassurance, doubting their ability unless fawned over with praise. Or, an activity with little inherent praise (like household chores or expected study habits) will leave them unmotivated, uninterested. They only have interest in receiving praise, not in learning and achieving for the intrinsic joy of doing so.
Praise is not all bad though. Here are four tips to avoid the dark side of praise and stay in the light.
Recognize effort. Rather than giving praise that involves some global, non-descript label (“You are such a good girl”), recognize effort invested (“You really studied for that test”).
Show interest and recognize specifics. Don’t just praise the whole finished project (“Oh, that’s beautiful”). Instead, ask a few specific questions: like “How did you choose that color?” “Where did you come up with that idea?” Find out more about their project and their thoughts behind the project. Then, recognize some specific aspect of the finished project, like “I like the combination of colors you chose.” “You show creativity in the way that character solved his problem.”
Don’t rush in. Step back. When your children appear stuck, step back and wait. Don’t rush in to fix, correct, or help. Let them struggle to find their own solution. Then recognize their effort. Acknowledge the solution and a specific aspect of that solution that you find especially creative, unique, or interestingly.
Finally, reframe failure. I love the way the Robinsons respond to failure in “Meet the Robinsons.” (Click Here to watch) Failure was a celebration, an opportunity to learn. Celebrating failure as an opportunity to learn gives our children the freedom to put in effort, fail, learn, and continuing working toward a better solution…tying the first three points together.
Don’t go to the dark side…of praise. With a little thought and effort, you can easily step into the light and enjoy the benefits of well-spoken encouragement and praise.