Praise Your Child For Effort, Not Ability

Children like to be praised. Besides feeling good, praise builds up their self-esteem and confidence. But praise must be done correctly or it could backfire.

Think about how you usually praise your child for something well. Most would say something like “Good job,” “Well done,” or “You’re so smart”? It turns out that such praise may be harmful to your child.

This was discovered by a team of researchers who asked a group of fifth graders to solve ten maths problems. When they succeeded in solving the problems, some were praised for their ability – for example, with “You are so good at Math,” and others for their effort. The study found that students praised for ability cared more about performance goals than learning goals. That means that they were more concerned about doing well than in learning and improving themselves. They also seem to lack the ability to bounce back after a setback. Failure makes them feel helpless and want to quit the task. 

Being praised for ability tells children that they succeeded due to a fixed trait or talent. And since it is fixed, you either have it or you don’t – and there is nothing you can do about it. This could cause these children to develop what psychologists call the fixed mindset. A fixed mindset means that you believe ability is fixed—so if you’re not good at something, then you’ll probably never be good at it. What you want your child to develop, rather, is a growth mindset. A growth mindset believes that your ability, intelligence, and talents can be developed over time. With practice comes improvement and progress.

If we are not supposed to praise our children for their ability, how then should we do it? 

Praising your children does not only make them feel good, it also encourages them to repeat the behaviour that you approve of. As much as parents would like outcomes, such as getting good grades in tests, to be repeated, they are totally unpredictable. The effort our children make can be repeated and is what we should praise. 

Suppose that your son is playing in a soccer match. He takes a shot at goal but misses. Instead of just saying to him “Good try” so that he will not feel overly disappointed with himself, praise him for the specific effort he made. You can applaud the amazing power of his kick, the laser focus while taking the shot, and the dedication he’s shown in training sessions. Praise what you want to be repeated because what you praise will be repeated.

Praising your child is just one way to respond when they do well. Sometimes, you can respond with a ‘thank you!’ like when they cleaned their room or helped with the housework. 

By Parcsen Loke, Family Life Coach, Centre for Fathering. 

Food for Thought: As parents, we correct our children when they do not do well and we commend them when they do. What’s the most common way you praise your children? Can you think of a better way?

Mueller CM, Dweck CS. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998 Jul;75(1):33-52. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.75.1.33. PMID: 9686450. Allison Masters. Praise that make learners more resilient (2015); Association of preconception paternal health on perinatal outcomes: analysis of U.S. claims data Kasman, Alex M. et al. Fertility and Sterility, Volume 113, Issue 5, 947 – 954