It’s easy to recognize the shortcomings in the previous generation — our parents did X when they clearly should have done Y. Hopefully, we take that information and build on it to improve the lives of the upcoming generation. Case in point: praise.
Back in the day, the prevailing wisdom was you did not praise kids often because this praise would lead to arrogance. This lead to a pendulum swing in the other direction, praising kids for every little thing so they end up with good self esteem. Part of the switch in thought can be attributed to the work Carol Dweck has done on the subject of mindsets. Forty years ago, she started exploring the idea each of us toggles, to one degree or another, between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
The fixed mindset is characterized by the belief that we are born with a certain set of skills and we are either naturally good at something or we are not. Having to work hard to improve at something, therefore is evidence we are not naturally gifted at that activity and we will never be good at it.
The growth mindset, on the other hand, is characterized by the belief that focused, hard work helps us to improve. We may not be good at an activity right off the bat but improvements can be make through increasing our effort and attention on that skill.
Dweck’s research has shown kids with a predominately growth oriented mindset will choose to working many minutes longer to solve a difficult problem and see challenging problems as a means to improve even when they are unsuccessful in solving them.
From a teaching, coaching, or parenting perspective, we want our kids to grow up with a growth mindset. Her research indicates a very particular type of praise can lead to reinforcing this growth mindset: praise for hard work… in the context of working toward a very specific goal or outcome.
Recently, Dweck has written about her experience with her work being misinterpreted. Her original dictate about praise has been shorten, as often happens, to the idea that hard work = success and may have played into the concept of “show up, work hard, we are all winners”. When, as most adults know, you have to have things to show for your hard work to mean something.
This returns the ball right back into our court. We need to reevaluate how we are encouraging and praising our kids. Are we saying things like, “Nice work during dribbling drills today!” or are we targeting the learning they are achieving through their hard work, “Nice work on your dribbling drills today. Your ball handling has improved even since our last game.”
At first glance, the extra words may not seems to add that much to the conversation. When taken from the child’s perspective, however, you have just given them a context for their praise. You have told them what they are doing well (hard work on the drills) and you have provided them with the outcome of their hard work (which is the focus of the drill anyway).
Kids repeat what they are praised for. if you praise them for hard work, they are going to focus on giving intensity to the task you assign. But you do not want them running around working up a sweat, you want them improving discreet skills, right? Praise that outcome, when you see it. Give them a focus for their hard work. It may take a little practice on your part, but you will be reinforcing the idea they improve at what they focus on. A little tweak on your part can bring us closer to the intent of Dweck’s research based finding.
For more information on Carol Dweck’s research, watch her TED Talk here!