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Signs of Success?

It seemed so SIMPLE. Your kid did well; you gave her a sticker. But have you noticed that by adolescence stickers and such outward signs of success just don’t seem to cut it for your teen anymore?

Thanks to the research of Dr. Carol Dweck, noted in the book, Nurture Shock, it’s become clear that how we speak to our children about their successes matters. . . a LOT!  Dweck differentiates between what she calls “person praise” and “process praise.”

Person-praise might sound like, “You’re so smart that you did really well on your math test,” or “You’re so nice every likes you.” Person-praise has a fixed quality, it is what it is. A kid is likely to feel that he was BORN with that level of skill or attribute, that it came to him all in one piece. In the face of a setback, a kid may think, “Well, maybe I wasn’t that smart after all. I guess I just can’t do math,” rather than consider what needs fixing.

Contrast that with process-praise which might sound more like, “Wow, you did better on your math test this week…must have been getting your notebook organized or working the problems you missed in homework.” Built into performance-praise is the notion that the kid DID something which contributed to his success, it is not fixed, but the result of an effort which he can control. In the face of setbacks, he is ready to think about what else he might need to do to succeed.

Dweck’s research compared kids who’d received person-praise (“You must be smart at this”) with kids who’d received process-praise (“You must have worked really hard “) after they’d completed an easy math puzzle. The next step was to give the children a choice of doing a second puzzle, either a hard one or an easy one. What researchers found was the kids who’d been praised for being smart, faced with a difficult challenge, elected to take the easy puzzle. Kids who’d heard that they were good workers selected the harder second puzzle 90% of the time!

In her summary, Dweck explained the difference this way,

When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” 

As your kids work along on their school assignment, you may want to experiment with person-praise and performance-praise. Or,  based on their response to setbacks, you may be able to tell which type of praise you’ve been relying on. Either way, give up the smiley face stickers and look for opportunities to praise the processes which you know lead to success: perserverance, practice, working with others, taking down the assignments, reviewing the notes . . .you know, the stuff we used to hate doing but then learned led to our success. Why not make performance-praise a homework assignment for yourself?

As always, I enjoy your comments. And if you are reading this from a country outside the U.S, I’d especially like to hear from you.