The Negative Power of Praise: Why You Should Stop Saying “Good Job” to Your Children

If there is one book I think all parents or educators should read it’s Carol Dweck’s Mindset.

I feel fortunate to have learned about her “growth mindset” because it infiltrates everything I do as a teacher and a mother – and even how I set standards for myself and approach challenges.

What is a growth mindset?

growth mindset

Having a growth mindset means that a person believes their success is based on their own actions and hard work. People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve – their abilities can be developed – if they decide to do the work.

The opposite of a growth mindset is “fixed mindset.” People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence (and other skills) is innate. They attribute their (and other people’s) success in school, sports, the arts, etc. to talent. They do not believe they can improve.

A great example of the growth mindset is demonstrated in a favorite phrase from my husband, coach and founder of Strength Running, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

Why is it important to instill this in children?

If children believe their intelligence is innate they will avoid challenges. A challenge is seen not as an opportunity to learn, but a way to risk losing their status as “the smart kid.”

A fixed mindset is very dangerous because it halts learning.

Kids with a fixed mindset stop working hard and prevent themselves from improving. They are so concerned with not looking like a failure that they basically shut themselves out from new learning opportunities.

These children lack intrinsic motivation and have a constant need for validation. To feel better about themselves they often run from difficulty, cheat or look for someone who has done worse than themselves.

puzzle

In one experiment conducted by Carol Dweck, groups of 5th graders were given a series of puzzles. In one group researchers were told to praise the children based on their effort and in the other group based on their intelligence. The students were either told, “You must have worked really hard” or “You must be smart at this.”

The students were then given a second round of puzzles that the researcher explained would be harder than the first one, but they would learn a lot from it. 90% of the students praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle while the majority of students praised for their intelligence chose the easier one.

Just one sentence can change a student’s willingness to take on challenges!

In Carol Dweck’s TED talk linked below, she mentions a high school that requires certain courses students must pass in order to graduate. When students do not pass, instead of saying “fail” the report card says “not yet.” Just imagine the power those words have!

Easy ways to change how you talk to kids

The great news is that you can change students’ mindsets by teaching them that hard work makes them smarter. Carol mentions several examples of chronically low performing students making huge progress after being educated in the growth mindset in her TED talk.

The growth mindset has become so ingrained in me that I cringe when I hear adults, especially teachers, say things like “You’re so smart!” or “Good job!” or “I love your picture.”

Why are these phrases so damaging to children? They instill a fixed mindset by making kids feel that their abilities are innate.

So what can we do to change mindsets?

Praise the process, not the person.

concentrating

Avoid anything that might suggest that an ability is a innate character trait. Ditch phrases like “You’re smart!” “You’re so good at soccer.” or “You are a great artist.”

Instead praise children’s strategies, perseverance and effort.

Begin sentences with “I noticed…”

“Good job” doesn’t teach students anything. If you want children to improve, describe the great behavior you see so children know what to continue doing to make progress.

  • “I noticed you worked really hard to do that zipper all by yourself and you got it!”
  • “I noticed you tried three different strategies until you figured out the answer.”
  • “I noticed you remembered to raise your hand when you had a question.”
  • “I noticed you shared your toys with Tom today. It’s hard when you want to play with something all by yourself, but he was sad and you made him feel better!”

Eliminate “I love your…” from your vocab

This can be a hard one, especially for parents. Children crave the approval of adults close to them. However, these phrases are still equally as damaging because it causes kids to work not for themselves, but for your approval.

Students often ask me if I like their drawing or something they created. Instead of saying, “I love your picture!” I ask questions about it or make general comments about what I noticed.

  • “Tell me about what you made.”
  • “You used a lot of red!”
  • “You added lots of detail to this drawing.”
  • “What do you like best about what you made?”

“I love the way you cleaned up all your toys,” may sound nice, but it is still inferring that a child should do something for your approval. Instead just insert “I noticed…” or “Wow! You cleaned up all your toys right away.”

Carol Dweck TED Talk

While I highly recommend reading Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, if you want to get familiar with the topic start here with this short (10min) TED Talk.

You can also read more about Carol’s research (and lots of other fascinating studies) in NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

What’s your mindset?

Always labeled the artist in my family, there was a point I gave up creating art because I was afraid to fail and might find out I didn’t possess real talent. I’ve had to work hard to change my mindset and remind myself that artistic skill is the result of a lot of practice and hard work.

Has a fixed mindset ever held you back? Held your children or students back?

How do you (or can you) use language to empower children to continue to grow and develop?

Image credits: Hugo Cardoso, christopher cornelius, Brittany Randolph, Dietmar Temps, Bindaas Madhavi

6 Replies to “The Negative Power of Praise: Why You Should Stop Saying “Good Job” to Your Children”

  1. “Has a fixed mindset ever held you back?” Yes.
    “Held your children or students back?” Yes.
    “How do you (or can you) use language to empower children to continue to grow and develop?” At the moment, I am simply astonished by what I’ve read and watched, because I feel like the definition for “fixed mindset” :-)) I recently read another article against the “Good job” approach and I must confess I had never thought about it before. It is all terribly interesting and challenging. As always, thank you for the inspiring article!

  2. How do you suggest giving a compliment? You can say how much you notice things on a drawing for instance, but when a direct question is asked, ” so do you like it?”, what would you recommend saying?

    1. Great question, Jen! Whenever a kid asks, “Do you like my picture?” I actually never really answer their question. You really don’t have to – kids don’t mind. All they are really looking for is to engage you in a conversation – to get your recognition for something they are proud of. So I just say things like, “Wow! Look at all the red you used. Those lines are really interesting. Tell me more about what you made.” Try it and you might be surprised how satisfied they are with your response!

  3. Hi, Im doing potty training with my 3 year old, today after peeing he asked me, are you happy now? and that just made me think what to respond because that tells me that the way Im training him is just to make me happy and not for him to feel he is supported. can you please help me giving me some tips for train him in a mindset way. Much appreciated.

    1. Thelma – so great you recognize what’s happening by listening to your son’s words. The most important thing is to make sure your son understands that it’s okay when he doesn’t make it to the potty and that you are happy with him no matter what. For some kids even just simple positive feedback and clapping/cheering puts pressure on them to please you when it comes to potty training. Just be careful with your language from now on and say things like, “I noticed you’re working so hard to pee and poop in the potty.”

      Potty training is hard! I’ll admit it’s the only time I’ve ever tried to use rewards (which still failed miserably). Stay positive but neutral, let him be in charge, and most importantly don’t be afraid to ask for help from your pediatrician.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *