the unquantifiable self

Helping kids reach their potential

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Former Olympic skier and motivational speaker Vince Poscente remarks that

In a pond koi can reach lengths of eighteen inches. Amazingly, when placed in a lake, koi can grow to three feet long. The metaphor is obvious. You are limited by how you see the world.

We all praise our children in the interest of raising their self-esteem and encouraging them to do their best. Who could have guessed that praise could actually be harmful? Twenty years of research by psychology professor Carol Dweck has shown that praising children for ability rather than effort actually lowers their performance on IQ tests and dampens their joy of learning.

It comes down to having what Dr. Dweck has dubbed a fixed versus a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset assume that characteristics such as intelligence are static, rather than a result of effort. They actually see hard work as a negative, an indication of a lack of ability. Success for such students is about validating their self-image as smart. For those with a growth mindset, however, effort is seen as an activator of ability, and success is about stretching oneself to learn something new.

Because students with a fixed mindset equate failure with a lack of intelligence, they shy away from taking on new challenges. Worse still, because they consider poor performance to be shameful, they will go as far as to lie to cover it up. Fear of failure can discourage children and adults alike from taking on creative or entrepreneurial endeavors, which will always require a certain amount of trial and error. As Sir Ken Robinson remarked in his popular TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity”:

We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

So how do we encourage our kids to have a growth mindset? Rather than praising children’s abilities or talents, Dweck suggests focusing on the processes they used to succeed—their strategies, effort, or choices. No need to curb your enthusiasm when they do well, but rather than praising talent, she recommends using phrases such as “You really studied for that test and your improvement shows it.”

There is an interesting caveat in the research when it involves moral values rather than skills. Wharton professor Adam Grant points to research showing that children who were praised for their character rather than for a behavior—”You’re such a helper” instead of “That was a helpful thing to do”—interiorized the praise and were more likely to repeat the positive behavior in the future. According to Grant, such character praise should be coupled with a disciplinary approach that explains rather than scolds for wrong-doing.

Other strategies that can help encourage a growth mindset include:

  • Asking questions at the dinner table such as “What did you try hard at today?” or “What mistake did you make that taught you something?”
  • Adding ‘YET’ to any statement reflecting difficulty with a skill, such as “I’m not good at math…yet.”
  • Encouraging kids to try new things and explaining that success takes hard work and persistence if they’re disappointed in their performance.

Perhaps most importantly, we must strive to model a growth mindset when taking on challenges ourselves, without self-criticism. This may be the hardest one to put into practice, as I discovered when I took up the guitar last year, only to bag it because I hadn’t mastered my favorite campfire sing-a-long faves a month later… Oopsies!

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