It is easy to get our kids doing push-ups with us and to comment, “Wow, I couldn’t do push-ups like that when I was your age. You are so strong!” Likewise, when our kids are playing at the park and we watch them beat their friends in a race, we might comment later about how fast our little guy is and when his sister is running circles around the soccer field we naturally let her know how athletic she is.
Unfortunately, these typical positive reinforcements are all sending the same debilitating message: “You are exceptional because of the outcome you just produced.” In effect, we tie their identity to a positive outcome and thus create a deep fear of any experience that might produce a different outcome. We instill a fear of failure.
When the boy’s PE class tests 40’s the next year and junior finds that he is in the middle of the pack, he is more likely to conclude he is no longer fast—that his natural gifts have fallen behind. Feeling his identity threatened, he will likely shy away from racing faster kids and begin to only engage in competitions where victory is likely.
Likewise, when his sister faces harder competition in soccer, she’ll assume it demonstrates she isn’t athletic. Rather than motivated by the competition, she is more likely to dislike this challenge and elect to play at a lower level.
I’ll be the first to say that it is no big deal if Sally doesn’t want to take on the soccer world and become the next Mia Hamm. Soccer isn’t the point. The point is the relationship our children are growing towards engaging challenges.
When we praise outcomes, we train them to only seek the most elementary of tasks because these present certain victories. These allow them to maintain the identities all the adults were constantly trying to build through their affirmations.
Eventually, our kids will be a shell of their potential because they avoided the challenges that forge capability. They’ll be less skilled at math because difficult problems proved they were “dumb at it.”
They’ll be disinterested in the piano because they weren’t “naturally good at it.” They’ll be less likely to take any risks or compete with anyone better because these essential experiences pose a great threat to their identity. So, what do we do?
Praise with Caution
Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, conducted a study with over 400 fifth grade students. One by one, each student was taken out of their class and taken to a testing room where they were given a set of “moderately difficult” problems.
After completion, the set was scored. All students were told they’d done well. Some were further praised for the ability their performance indicated: “Wow, you must be smart at these problems.” Others were praised for their effort: “Wow, you must have worked hard at these problems.”
Then, the researchers gave students a far harder problem set. When each student finished they were told that they’d done poorly. Researchers asked students if they’d like to take this more challenging problem set home to practice. The kids praised for effort were far more likely to take these problems home than those praised for their ability.
Even more, when given a third set of problems, those praised for effort outperformed those praised for ability and when given the option, at the end, of reading how they could improve their test performance and seeing their peer’s results, the effort-praised were far more likely to learn how to improve, while the ability praised wanted to know how their peers had done. One group knew they could improve and were invested, while the other felt defined by innate talent and were only curious to rank themselves.
Dweck has since repeated many similar studies across many age ranges, all yielding similar results. The take-home message is clear. Praise effort, not ability.
Effort and response are all we control in life. Our environment obsesses on superficial immediate outcomes and telling people they are the product of their environment. The failed self-esteem movement deluded us all into thinking we should just tell everyone they are special. We should have been telling them that if they want to be special they’ll need special effort.
The truth is, all that matters at the individual level is that we learn that we can respond to life’s feedback, grow, and adjust course more intelligently. Our challenges and failures are life’s greatest gift because they reveal weaknesses we can strengthen with a little effort. Hasn’t that always been the beautiful truth of training?
This Week’s Mission
Notice. Start to notice how you and others praise kids. Do we praise the things they control like kindness, effort, persistence, and discipline—or do we praise perceived innate qualities like intelligence, athleticism, and musical ability?
To take this to the next level, consider how we respond to external circumstances. Do we say it is bad weather, we can’t go outside, or do we say, it’s rainy so let’s get our rain boots and umbrella and jump in some puddles? April showers are on their way.