Praise them what they DO, not what they ARE

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 17, 2008

In the comments to the last post, Pannlife wrote:

In the course of my education, I come across much concerning the differentiation of genders. Recently, I read something that suggested that you should praise effort rather than results; praise kids for things that they control and do, rather than things that they just are. My kids just are good looking; that is not something they control. Instead I should be praising them for things like, say, learning to swim, or making a cool piece of art. And I do. But it is startling and interesting that their physical attributes attract my eye and my mind often. They are so, so, beautiful to look at that it hurts sometimes.

Yup. Praising kids for what they do encourages what’s called a “Growth” mindset — it reinforces the idea that they’re in charge of their destiny and their successes are due to effort. If you’ve got a “Fixed” mindset, on the other hand, you think that all you’ve got is the cards that you’re dealt, and so you don’t have much of a way to change that. I remember some study that showed that kids (K-6, I believe) were more likely to take a poor grade on a test as a sign that they need to study harder if they showed signs of a “Growth” mindset, whereas those with a “Fixed” mindset took it as a real blow to the ego. It showed that they were less worthy of a person because they weren’t “smart.” You can imagine how this can be crippling to a kids’ future efforts. And how easy it is for us as parents and teachers to encourage that sort of thinking. It arises in part because we want to boost someone’s ego by telling them good things about. But, in truth. having high self-esteem hasn’t really been shown to relate to success in any measures, as in this article I wrote a few years back, “You’re not as great as you think you are.”

After 18,000 studies, there is no evidence, said Ray Baumeister, that having high self-esteem makes a person a better worker, student, husband, or wife. Nor does it protect against violence, smoking, drinking, taking drugs, or becoming sexually active at a young age. It does, however, reduce the risk of bulimia in young women.

Anyway. I know I’m of the “Fixed” mindset, and it really hampers me in life.

Here’s a PDF illustrating the differences between Fixed and Growth.


Jennifer Ouellette August 18, 2008 at 8:34 am

I think the idea is one of those that seems sound, but doesn’t always work in practice. I mean, what’s to keep these “Growth” kids from having an over-inflated view of themselves? ๐Ÿ™‚ As important as it is to have self-esteem, it’s equally important to grow out of any cocky overconfident stage.

Perhaps the real problem is that we do not prepare our children to deal with failure. We think it is a bad thing, when in fact, it’s how we learn. That’s possibly the most important thing I took away from my martial arts training. I succeeded only after repeated failures, and with each failure I got a little bit better.

We don’t respect failure, we pass that onto our kids, and they learn to be afraid to fail. So when they do fail — as they must — instead of learning and growing from it, they receive a blow to their self-esteem.

sciencegeekgirl August 18, 2008 at 9:06 am

Jennifer, I absolutely agree. Research like this often tells us what *is* but not necessarily what we should do about it. Your comment on preparing children to deal with failure is a sound one, and reminds me of one of my favorite “This I Believe” essays from NPR a few years back:

Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.

Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.

Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as “she who has broken many pots.”

Read the whole thing at:

FFFearlesss August 18, 2008 at 11:08 am

There’s a great blog over at Female Science Professor that talks about the need, the importance of “feeling stupid”, especially in the science field. She references a paper that has an awesome quote:

The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

I dig that concept but wonder how I go about instilling that idea into my younger kids, that its OKAY not to know the answer because academics and life in general is all about constantly seeking

sciencegeekgirl August 18, 2008 at 11:31 am

I agree with Female Science Professor. This is actually one of the things we try to model in the classroom here at the university, and we also modeled in our K-12 teacher workshops at the Exploratorium: Showing that the teacher didn’t always have the right answers. But that he/she knew how to find out! Kids often found that very powerful, since they’re used to teachers having all the right answers. The way science is traditionally taught, “having the answers” shows that you’re smart. But in real science (and real life) admitting you don’t know something but knowing *how* to find out is the mark of true brains.

There was another blog, I can’t remember which one, which mentioned that as a graduate student, the person always felt stupid. Because as soon as you figure something out, then it’s on to the next thing where you feel stupid. This has always been tough on my ego, personally.

Etienne August 30, 2008 at 4:46 pm

Definitely enjoying the posts here, sciencegeekgirl – thanks for contributing here.

I have two thoughts I’d like to share; neither is about science education but both are directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

First, when you said: “as soon as you figure something out, then itโ€™s on to the next thing where you feel stupid. This has always been tough on my ego, personally.”

… that made me think of something I used to talk about with my employees: an understanding of your own knowledge. We used to ask employees to rate their own performance, knowledge etc. The consistent result: newer employees rated their own capabilities higher than experienced ones. The more you know, the more you realize you *don’t* know. Given how you felt in the constant slog up the physics grad student learning curve, it’s too bad that nobody was around to help you see what you had accomplished. It’s probably a good idea to take a look behind you now and then. For me, teaching others is a great reinforcer for my knowledge *and* ego.

Second, the NPR story about the kindergarten student’s grandparent silently wishing for them to fail reminded me of a friend’s wedding. I gave a speech at the reception, and looking back over my own life and choices, I decided to wish them conflict. And I did so publicly in front of their family and friends and new in-laws. Experiencing (and surviving) conflict of all types has been the most potent driver of my own psyche and self-confidence over the years. I got a couple of shocked looks from my friend’s new bride and others in the audience, but later than night and the next day some older members of the audience shared their approval with me. Their lives had been specifically enriched by dealing with conflict, and doing it together with their spouse.

The Fixed v Growth dynamic looks a bit simplistic but as a theoretical model it matches up with several people I know, and does that well. I am interested to look up the author for ideas on how to reinforce the Growth mentality in children.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: