Most parents are eager to praise their children. It's natural to want your kid to feel loved, successful, and happy. However, science says the way you praise a child can be the difference between building a child's healthy self-esteem, and setting them up for anxiety in the future.
This has to do with what's called a fixed mindset vs. growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset, you're either smart or stupid, good or bad, right or wrong. In a growth mindset, success is about how hard you try, and you can always try again. It's about intrinsic worth versus effort and growth.
If you're constantly praising your child by telling them how great or smart they are, you may be establishing more of a fixed mindset without even realizing it, and doing them a massive disservice. For example:
Fixed Mindset: "You got the right answer. Good job -- you're so smart!"
Growth Mindset: "You got the right answer. Good job! You worked really hard to understand that and you did it!"
Fixed Mindset: "You completed that Lego structure so fast! You're great at those."
Growth Mindset: "Great work! How about trying an even harder Lego challenge? I think you can do it!"
Note that the emphasis in the growth mindset is on how hard the child worked, not the outcome of that work. Thus even if you get an incorrect response, if you worked hard, you "won." A child like this won't be discouraged by getting things wrong, and will quickly feel ready to try again.
Note also that in the second example, the child is encouraged to try something even more difficult -- they're encouraged to grow). Here, you're building a mindset of, "I got it right! Let's see if I can do something even harder." -- instead of, "I got it right! I must be smart." Because the big, looming problem with that second one is the flip side: "I didn't get it right. I must be stupid."
Establishing a growth mindset can seem subtle in terms of the language you use, but according to Stanford research Dr. Carol Dweck, it has a profound impact on a child's success, both now and in the future.
Want proof? Check this out: Dr. Dweck studied seventh-grade children who began a school year with practically identical test scores. The kids were all evaluated for signs of having either a fixed or growth mindset. After two years, researchers found that there was a consistent difference in the grades of the two groups -- the kids with growth mindsets did far better.
This is because the kids with fixed mindsets were more likely to avoid tasks that might show them to be lacking in some way. They didn't want to try if they didn't know they'd succeed, because they didn't want to feel like a failure.
The children with growth mindsets, on the other hand, engaged in "learning at all costs." Because they believed intelligence could be developed (i.e. wasn't fixed), they weren't afraid to try., the result of which was that they learned more, tried harder, and did better.
In other words, the goal is to support kids in feeling unafraid of failure. When you focus on whether they're smart or not (even if the message is, "You're so smart!"), it actually makes them less determined to try new things. When you instead point out the effort they put in and how they're now ready for an even bigger challenge, it shows them that they're safe to fail, and that they have the power to strive for more.
It's obviously best to start establishing a growth mindset from an early age. However, research shows that it's never too late to begin building a growth mindset in children, so don't worry if your kids are older. Heck, we should probably start building a growth mindset ourselves, even as adults.
So: stop praising the wrong things, start praising the right ones, and watch your kids soar.