One day I was doing preschool work with a boy I babysit. After reading the book Mindset, by Carol Dweck, I've always been very careful how I worded my praises. That day I was just plain excited because he seemed to be getting something he struggled with before. Without thinking I shouted, "You are so smart!" Then he did something that may surprise you. He said he was done. He didn't want to play that game anymore.
Why would a boy who was struggling with something, want to stop just as he started to catch on? After all I praised him!?!
Having worked with other kids as a nanny, a babysitter, a substitute teacher, foster parent, and parent, I have had a lot of chances to test Dweck's theories out, so when I absently praised him for being smart, his reaction did not surprise me. I knew why he wanted to stop, yet I was still shocked how at three years old, he had quickly went from having fun to not wanting to keep going after one small comment.
Many of you probably don't see anything wrong with what I did, or why he responded that way. Why would a kid praised as smart want to quit? Shouldn't he want to keep proving to me he was smart?
The problem was, he didn't know if he could. Although he couldn't consciously tell me this, nor would he realize his reason why, even if he could discuss his reaction with me. The thing is, I had called him smart, and he didn't want to prove me wrong. It was better to remain smart in my eyes, then prove to me he didn't deserve that title.
Praising in and of itself is a great thing! The problem is, too often we praise the wrong thing as parents. We tell a kid he is smart, because he got a good grade. We tell a girl she is pretty, because she dressed nicely. We tell a boy he is gifted at basketball because he is tall and made a few baskets. The one thing all three of these things have in common is the children have no control over whether these are true, and they are all subjective.
What happens when the smart kid gets a bad grade; is he no longer smart? What happens when the girl comes out of her room and asks how a dress looks, and she gets a courteous smile and you respond a distracted "that's nice." Will she think she's not as pretty anymore? What happens to the boy who suddenly goes off to college and joins their basketball team and he is the shortest, slowest on the team; is he no longer gifted at playing basketball? None of these are true, but they feel true to a person who is trying to gauge themselves as smart, pretty, or athletic.
That's why it is so important to know how to compliment your child in a way that will motivate them to want to grow as a person. Instead of telling a child who got an A on their test that their smart, try, "You really worked hard to get that A, it was so good to see how hard working you are!" Hard work is something they CAN control, and will cause them to strive for greater achievement. The same thing goes for dealing with athletics or music ability, focus on things they can control such as hard work, perseverance, focus, paying attention to instructions, good sportsmanship, etc.
Instead of giving your daughter a blanket statement of beauty, be specific. "That dress looks very nice on you!" "You have very beautiful brown eyes." "I love the way your smile brightens up your entire face." By being specific, this will help them on days when they don't feel pretty. They will always have the same beautiful brown eyes, whether they have a bad hair day or not. This can go for sports and athletics as well. Telling a kid that the way he positioned his hand while throwing the basketball was an excellent move, gives him something to hone in on the next time he passes a ball. By being specific, it gives the child a sense of control over their identity.
So although I called this sweet little boy smart, he didn't feel in control of his ability. I knew that he didn't want to not be smart again, because he failed the same thing ten times before. I only called him smart when he got it right. Even at the tender age of three he thought that if he was smart for getting it right, if he got it wrong, he might not be considered smart and didn't want to risk that.
I went in for damage control, and changed my wording as he started to get down from his chair. I looked him in the eye and said, "I loved how you didn't give up. You tried so hard, and you finally got it because you didn't give up. Do you think you could try that hard again? I'd love to see you try again!"
That little boy gave me a big grin and nodded his head yes. He wanted to play again. He knew I was proud of him, not because he got the answer right, but because he worked so hard to get the answer right. So he knew I'd be proud whether he got the next answer right or wrong. You know what the next time he tried, he got it wrong, but kept trying until he got it right and looked at me waiting for another praise.
After six years of infertility, she was blessed with the adoption of her oldest daughter who now is a teenager. Six years later, she finally became a mother a second time, this time with a baby through a donated egg and ivf. Throughout that time, she fostered nine babies and toddlers, met wonderful women who helped her grow, and learned to rely on Jesus. She started this blog with the hope that she could share her joy, experience, and willingness to grow with others, whether they battle infertility, toddlers, or teens.