CHILD PROOF

The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Praise Your Kids

Phrasing is everything

Elizabeth Preston
Forge
Published in
4 min readAug 22, 2019

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Credit: StockPlanets/Getty Images

Your preschooler draws a picture of you. It looks like a potato chip.

“Wow, look at that!” you’re probably tempted to say. “You’re such a good artist!”

Before you do, though, take a beat to consider your words. The right phrasing might keep your little artist happy and hardworking, but researchers say praising children the wrong way can make them less motivated, harm their self-esteem, or even turn them into tiny narcissists.

“In general, in the U.S. particularly, we tend to view all praise as good,” says Shannon Zentall, a developmental psychologist at the University of Akron. But focusing on a child’s innate qualities — saying “You’re so smart” or “You’re great at math,” for example — can actually be harmful, possibly because it suggests that these qualities are fundamental to the child’s identity. Kids who hear this kind of “person praise” may be less persistent after a failure or avoid difficult tasks in favor of easier ones, perhaps because a failure would threaten that identity.

They may also be more keenly attuned to potential mistakes. In a 2012 study, Zentall and her co-author, Bradley Morris, used eye-tracking technology to show that young kids who had heard person praise (“You’re a good drawer”) focused more on the errors in a drawing. This ties in with mindset theory, an idea developed by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck that suggests that a fixed mindset — the belief that abilities are innate and unchangeable — undermines personal progress.

By contrast, process praise focuses on what the kid did: “You must have studied hard for that math test,” or simply, “Good job!” Some research co-authored by Dweck has shown that after kids hear this kind of feedback, they’re more motivated on future tasks and more resilient to setbacks.

According to mindset theory, process praise can also help kids cultivate the opposite of the fixed mindset: a growth mindset, or the belief that their abilities are malleable and can be improved with time and effort. In one study, Dweck and her colleagues videotaped parents interacting with their toddlers and gave questionnaires to the same kids years later…

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Elizabeth Preston
Forge
Writer for

Elizabeth Preston is a freelance science journalist and humor writer in the Boston area.