It might sound like I’m splitting hairs here… but the way we encourage our kids MATTERS.
My daughter stood on the podium marked 3, smiled and waved at end of her first ever gymnastics meet. Was I happy for her? Sure. Did I praise her as being an amazing gymnast? No.
What did I tell her when she walked up to her dad and I after the meet, four shiny metals around her neck, trophy in hand, beaming ear to ear? I hugged her and said with an equally large smile, “I LOVED watching you out there. You had this big smile the entire time. It looked like you were having a blast. Honey, we’re so proud of how committed you are to your team. You are learning so much…”
Why didn’t I gush over her getting to stand on the podium? Why not go on and on about the shiny new metals that hung around her neck? It’s because when we praise the child (or the outcome like the “win”) verse praising the child’s effort, their brain holds onto our praise as conditional and in the end, our praise becomes discouragement.
I think of it this way: praise the child/win/outcome and the brain thinks: I AM GOOD WHEN I DO GOOD. So what happens when our kids face something new and hard? Something they are “bad” at? Their brain is left to conclude: I AM GOOD WHEN I DO GOOD AND I AM BAD AT THIS… I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS HARD THING. I AM NOT “GOOD” AT IT.
But praise the effort and waaaa-laaaa, you have a child whose brain is being incentivised to face challenges.
The real win, I want my ten year old to know deep in her heart, is the person she is. The love and respect she shows her coaches. The encouragement she gives her teammates and the girls on other teams, clapping for and watching them attentively. The commitment and focus she exercises, day in and day out, in getting her mom and her twin three year old brother and sister motivated to GET IN THE CAR NOW that she might get to practice on time (where early is on time and on time is late!). The patience and care she shows her body when she decides to sit a practice out because she is hurting even though it kills her to sit on the sidelines and watch.
Understanding the full impact our words as parents have on our kids takes time —but given the research, it’s time worth spending. There is power in the way we praise.
- Praising the child: “Man you are smart.” Praising the effort: “That was a long assignment, but you stuck to it and got it done. That’s great!
- Praising the child: “You are an amazing artist.” Praising the effort, “Wow. Look at all the different colors/techniques/materials/etc you used to make that picture.” or “What was your favorite part of making that?” or “Can I hang this in the kitchen?”
- Praising the child: “You are such a great soccer player” Praising the effort, “You worked really hard today at soccer practice.” or “I love to watch you play.”
None of this sort of praising comes easy or naturally to me. After thirteen years of thinking about process over outcome, of working to praise the effort not the child, is it still hard for me?
YES. I do it “wrong” all the time. But that’s okay. I love a challenge.
Food for thought:
- Are the things we’re saying to our kids inspiring them or discouraging them?
- Are we helping them take on a growth mindset or a fixed mindset?
- Are we preparing them for the challenges life will surely hold or are we not?
- And finally, how do we, their parents, respond to challenges? Both ours and theirs.
Praise the effort, not the child. I’d love to hear your thoughts.