My kids wrapped up the last day of school with big grins, clothes stained with pizza sauce from the class party, and a certificate each.
My big guy received a certificate for academic excellence in Grade 3. His sister received a certificate for perseverance in Grade 2. I instantly whipped out my phone to take pictures for the grandparents.
I was crazy proud of both my kids. But, to be honest, I may have considered my son’s certificate a tad more impressive than my daughter’s perseverance award. In my defense, it’s the way I’ve always understood success.
We live in a “show me the money” world that pats people on the back for the results they achieve. How they got there makes for a nice story – but it doesn’t win awards. At least not “impressive” ones.
But here’s the thing: If I want to raise a child who shows tenacity, there’s one thing I need to do – I need to praise him or her for the journey and not the destination. I need to praise effort, persistence, hard work, and plain old practice. If I praise only the end result – good grades, a fantastic piano recital, a touchdown, and smarts – I may in fact be raising a child who ducks from challenges and is fearful of failure.
This is one of the principles outlined by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her bestselling book "Mindset."
In a speech based on her book, Dweck speaks of two kinds of praise – ability praise and process praise.
Ability praise is complimenting your kid for being smart or talented. According to Dweck, ability praise may boost self-confidence, but only for the short term. When a child raised on ability praise encounters a failure – and we all know that’s inevitable – his confidence drops and he is ready to throw in the towel. They are almost fearful of losing their “smart” or “talented” title.
According to Dweck, “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance. Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence – like a gift – by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong.”
Process praise, on the other hand, highlights effort over achievement. It applauds persistence, strategy, and hard work. It says, “I loved the way you invested time and effort in your project.” When the child raised on process praise encounters a failure, he or she thinks of ways to engage with it.
Process praise means stopping long enough to recognize commitment. It means high-fiving them for sticking with something that was incredibly hard, that they may not even have a natural talent for. It means allowing your child to fail – and teaching them that they’ve only failed if they’ve given up. Process praise takes a whole lot more work than looking at a report card and saying, “Great job, kid!”
In Dweck’s economy, my daughter’s perseverance award was worth its weight in gold. It creates a sense of “stick-with-it-ness” that’s going to see her through life.
Dweck puts it like this: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
In our daily routine, I find plenty of opportunities for process praise. Things I would have otherwise ignored as the end results are not immediately tangible. I observe my son’s tenacity in delivering a one-line speech on stage. He forgets the one line. Twice. But then he pushes himself. He overcomes the butterflies and says his line. I tell him I’m proud of him for not giving up.
I see my daughter’s stick-with-it-ness as she colors intricate squiggles in an adult coloring book, the kind that makes me feel like I’ve been peering into a kaleidoscope too long. “Great job keeping focused. I know that it can be quite tiring,” I tell her.
Little moments. No tangible results. But the impact of noticing, recognizing, and complimenting can go a long way in molding a child who sees challenges as opportunities to grow.