Too much praise, it seems, can be damaging, especially if kids are praised in the wrong way, and failure can be a good experience for children if it is framed as a learning experience.
In her book Mindset, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck contrasts students with "growth mindsets" to those with "fixed mindsets," and very effectively describes not only why a growth mindset is superior to a fixed one but also how to help your child develop a growth mindset.
GROWTH MINDSET: The child is ready to take intellectual risks and learn. He is not afraid of failing, but sees failure as part of the learning process. He believes that effort, hard-work, and persistence will eventually pay off, and failure is a learning experience that will help him on the road to success.
FIXED MINDSET: The child sees himself as having certain talents or abilities that are fixed. He does everything possible to maintain this image, and as a result, he sees failure as a direct reflection of his own abilities. The child is afraid to take intellectual risks because failure could potentially damage how he sees himself and/or how others see him. Children with a fixed mindset are afraid of taking intellectual risks or any kind of risk because they are so afraid of failing.
It's not hard to see that a growth mindset will take one further in life than a fixed mindset, which could be very limiting. So how does a parent or educator help a child develop a growth mindset?
Here are some suggestions from Carol Dweck:
1. Praise effort not ability. For example, don't tell your child that he's a fantastic writer. Instead, praise the time and energy he put into the writing process and praise specific techniques that the child used. Say, "You worked really hard on this piece of writing, and your hard work paid off. You did a great job with your description of the dragon; I particularly loved the description of his tail."
Similarly, don't tell your child that he's a "gifted mathematician." Instead, say, "I like how you solved this difficult problem in such an efficient and elegant manner. You really thought hard about it, didn't you?"
2. Don't tell your kids that they are smart. Tell them that if they work hard enough at anything, they'll do well. Always send your child the message that hard-work, effort, and persistence are key to success.
3. Think carefully about how you frame failure for your child. Failure is not a bad thing. In fact, it's good for kids to fail sometimes because it teaches them that failure is not the end of the world and helps them develop resilience. Don't protect your kids from failure; instead, when they do fail, help them re-frame their failures as learning experiences. Tell your kids that mistakes are learning experiences, and that everyone encounters failure at some time. Strong and successful people don't fall apart or get down on themselves for failing, they LEARN from their failures.
When your child comes home with a low grade on a test, discuss how the child can do better next time. Ask questions such as: What strategies can you use? How can you work harder? What can you learn from this experience so that next time round you do better?
4. Encourage intellectual risks. Encourage your child to tackle the harder topic or take the harder course. Tell your child that you value a risk-taking ability and the desire to try MORE than you value their final grade. What matters most is that the child is willing to take a risk and try something hard. If they fail at first, that's fine. If they keep trying, they will eventually overcome their failures and do fine.
Praise initiative and risk-taking along with effort. These are crucial qualities for a growth mindset.
5. Emphasize how learning is not easy, but it is satisfying and pleasurable. Learning is fun and fulfilling for its own sake, not just for the sake of a grade. And overcoming challenges through hard work makes learning more fun and rewarding.
The ultimate goal of education should be to inspire a child with a genuine love of learning. If a child begins to understand the joy and satisfaction that a cerebral life can provide, then he will seek knowledge of his own accord. As parents and educators, our goal is not to convince a child that he/she is smart; it is to show our children that learning is exciting and satisfying. Light the fire, and the child will do the rest.