In this guest post, Bec O’Brien explains how to praise your kids to develop a growth mindset.
Here’s a task for you the next time you’re at the playground with your tot. Resist the urge to make “small-people talk” (my term for the baby-focused small talk we all find ourselves engaged in from time to time). I want you to just sit on the sidelines and start a mental tally. I want you to take note of every- “Well done”, “Good job” and “You’re so clever/smart” comment you say to your kids. I’m sure by now you’ve tallied at least one “clever/smart” based feedback at the park – probably something like “Oh you’ve figured out that stomach-churning, spinny thing – aren’t you clever!”
We all do it. I was walking into Suspension Cafe the other day with my one year old and noticed someone in the neighbourhood had placed ‘googly eyes’ in entertaining positions- (next time you’re there, be on the lookout!) My son made a beeline for the googly eyes that were stuck above a crack in the pavement, making it look like a toothsome grin! I laughed out loud and said to my boy “Look what someone’s done! Aren’t they clever?” The absurdity of my choice in words hit me immediately. Why clever? It was creative, imaginative, entertaining, but I chose clever. It was so automatic.
You might be thinking ‘Give us a break Bec! Aren’t you just caught up in the semantics?’ Well, here’s the thing. Research says what you say to your kids matters.
An experiment by psychologist Carol Dweck divided kids into two groups. One group was given our seemingly innocuous “You must be so smart!’ praise and the other group was given intentional and focused praise such as “You’re working hard at that” and “You’re problem solving”. Here’s what the research found. Kids that are hearing “you’re so clever” for just about everything from doing a poo to identifying a lychee, tend to think ‘clever’ is a fixed, stable trait and are unlikely to attempt harder tasks. Why? Because they grow up thinking ‘failure’ is a direct reflection on some flaw in themselves. Furthermore, she found toddlers who were praised for their persistence and problem solving ended up out-performing their peers at school five years later!
Hopefully this is reason enough to convince you to be focused and intentional with your praise. Develop some responses to your kids that would be considered growth based. The idea being, to create a mindset that perceives mistakes as important, sees persistence as the real key to success and feels safe and secure enough in themselves to fail!
Let’s revisit my example with the googly eyes. If you’re tempted, like me, to use ‘clever’ – take a second to think about WHAT you’re praising – Are you impressed by your child’s problem solving? Skills of observation? Fashion sense? Word choice? Empathy? Dance moves? Then say that! It’s that easy. Plus you get the added bonus of building their vocabulary and giving yourself at least a semblance of an adult conversation during the day (even if you’re the only one that appreciates it at this stage).
Every time we give our child feedback- we are creating their internal dialogue (the little voice in their heads). If this voice is focused and intentional in its feedback- our kids will be much more likely to be able to problem solve and overcome adversity. So if little Johnnie is ‘very clever’ for spelling axolotl- what does that make Jenny who can’t spell cat? Let’s turn that around. What if Johnnie is praised for his researching skills? He was studying South American walking fish. Suddenly Jenny isn’t quietly feeling dumb as she now knows the path to success! The world makes a lot more sense to both Johnnie and Jenny.
So now you’re that parent at the park that says “Wow! Your problem solving skills really got you out of a pickle! I admire your persistence!” You might get some sideways looks but I guarantee you will create more ‘growth based’ kids.
Bec O’Brien is a teacher, school counsellor and mum who runs a business called Square Peg Tutoring. Her holistic approach to learning ensures kids are given the chance to develop a growth mindset. Growth based feedback comes easy to her in an educational setting but she’s still working on it in her parenting.