As parents, we are always looking for ways to bolster our teen’s self- confidence.  Most of us have been using praise as a way to cheer them on from the time they took their first steps and we continue to do so as they take on new challenges.    We praise our children’s efforts with the very best of intentions. Dr. Carol Dweck, of Stanford University has done extensive research on the use and effects of praise on student’s academic performance that may cause us to rethink how we praise and coach our kids.  The details of her research can be found in her book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success.

Her research found that kids who are praised for their intelligence are less likely to pursue more difficult or challenging tasks, and children who are praised for their hard work and effort are more likely to persist in challenging or difficult tasks.  Of course we want our kids to work hard and persevere in their school work whether that be trying to figure out a really difficult math problem or writing a complex research paper.  Unfortunately however, it turns out that telling them how smart they are or praising them for their abilities actually undermines their self- confidence.   Dweck believes that kids who are praised for intelligence and ability don’t persist in difficult tasks because they think that if the task is difficult for them it means they aren’t smart enough or don’t have enough ability.  Kids are highly sensitive to the views of others and don’t want to fail.   This is called the Fixed Mindset.  Students who are praised for their effort and hard work actually become motivated to challenge themselves because they believe that with more effort and hard work they can be successful.  Working hard is reward in itself. This is called the Growth Mindset. Dweck says that, “in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.  In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.” Click here to watch some of her research:

So what are we parents to learn from this research?  Dr. David Walsh, Ph.D., suggests the following:

  1. Praise for effort rather than intelligence, ability or talent. Avoid focusing on grades.
  2. Be specific, so teens know exactly what they’re doing right. Emphasize effort and strategy.
  3. Be sincere, because teens know when it’s just lip service. Insincere praise undermines confidence.
  4. Praise should be intermittent, not overdone. Reserve praise for significant effort and accomplishment.

According to Dr. Walsh, “Self-esteem is built on competence and achievement — and effort and hard work are major ingredients of competence and achievement”.

Lisa Weir, M.Ed., Parent & Family Educator