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Motivating Kids Versus Stunting Their Growth - The Empowering Mindset vs the Fixed

Johnny Lascha, Certified Health, life and Mental Fitness Coach Written 10/9/23

Most parents want what is best for their children. Praising children for their accomplishments sounds like a good thing to do. I agree with this basic premise, but how we praise our children is equally important. Research shows that praising a person’s ability versus their effort can either propel a person to continue their greatness or trap them into a fear of failing.

Toddler exploring different colors while painting.
toddler painting

Carol Dweck (2006), Ph. D, author of Mindset: The New Psychology or Success, found that praising children for their ability, or ‘natural talent’, created fixed or limiting mindsets moving forward. I interpreted her findings as that by praising a child’s ability or gift, we create an identity around that particular trait. This translates to, “I am only a good person and worthy of love if I continue to stay at this level”. Paradoxically, this way of thinking limits engagement in future opportunities. All people create identities of who they are, and this leads to what they can or cannot become. When our identity is on the line, by trying something new or challenging, there is a strong urge to keep the status quo alive and deem trying and failing too great a risk. The smart thing to do is quit while we are ahead. If I try and fail, then I will lose respect, love, and have an identity crisis. Therefore, it’s safer if I skip this opportunity, and stay safe. Dweck lists dozens of examples, illustrating extremely gifted musicians, athletes and academics that were praised for their ‘talent’ and found themselves stuck in a fixed mindset. This allowed others to catch up with their accomplishments and eventually surpass them. When our identities are strongly linked to our talents, hobbies or our professions, fear of doing poorly can be a strong motivation to never put ourselves in a position that we might fail.

Dweck found that by simply changing how we praise our children can change the trajectory of their entire life. An example might be when a child comes home from school with an A+, we could say, “You are SO smart”. This type of praise connects their identity to bringing home A+ grades. An alternative method of praise could be, “You studied extremely well for this test. All that effort sure did pay off. Great job”. In the second example, we are praising the process, and not connecting the gift to their identity. We are fostering a belief centered around the process of how we do things.

Conclusion: Praising someone for their ability run the risk that they will develop a fixed mindset around their natural gifts. This may hinder their incentive to try new and challenging activities because the risk of failing translates that they will lose love and support and praise from others. The inverse would be to praise kids for their effort, and the process they used to reach their goals, rather than their ability.

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