Praise is powerful. It has the ability to motivate, guide and support our childrens’ learning and boost their self-confidence.

We all want our children to succeed. Naturally, we praise them to encourage and motivate them. And we sometimes do this regardless of whether or not they have truly applied their best efforts.

However, research tells us that, though well-intentioned, praise for ability as opposed to praise for effort has the capacity to derail our son’s learning.

Mindset matters

According to leading researcher Carol Dweck, children generally fall into two categories when considering perceived intelligence – those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset.

Children with a fixed mindset believe that they have a certain amount of intelligence from birth. According to Dweck, they believe that if they have to make an effort to learn, it is because they aren’t smart enough and therefore often become discouraged or simply give up when faced with setbacks. They tend to avoid learning challenges where they might make mistakes. 

In contrast, children with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence can be developed with effort and hard work. These children tend to try hard in the face of frustration and failure, believing that effort is a positive thing they can use to gain knowledge.

A 2015 study published in the European Journal of Psychology of Education indicated that the belief that intelligence was malleable (growth mindset) boosted children’s self-esteem and improved their academic self-concept.

Compare this with students whose fixed mindset was found (by Dweck) to be associated with increased self-handicapping, truancy and a greater likelihood of giving up on school altogether.

Praising effort over ability

How then do we use praise to encourage a ‘growth mindset’?

Avoid praising your child for their natural intellect or abilities. Focus instead on praise for effort and determination, which will help teach your child the value of hard work, make them more resilient and better equipped to overcome future obstacles. And ensure that your praise is genuine – children are perceptive and will pick up on insincerity.

As parents, we need to remember that learning is hard. According to 2007 study The Power of Feedback, children need to understand that a good process is what will lead to good learning. The study also argues that feedback, where it is clear, purposeful, meaningful and compatible with a child’s prior knowledge, is perhaps the most powerful influence on the learning process.

Remember, the growth mindset is a journey. The end goal is to improve and learn through hard work and persistence. 

Kate Casey is a former lawyer and is now an Associate at Brighton Grammar’s own intellectual ‘think- tank’ the Crowther Centre.