It’s hard to find a more universally accepted piece of parenting advice than the importance of regularly showering our children with praise. From diminishing the disappointment of failure to actively rewarding achievement, consistently bestowing positive reinforcement seems to be one of the key responsibilities of parenthood, allowing children to develop the vital sense of confidence and self-esteem in their formative years that will equip them for success in later life when battling through an often indifferent and uncaring world.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck believes in the power of praise as well, but for her, the issue is considerably more subtle. Depending on how you do it, she says, you might actually be doing more harm to your child than good.
Carol tells us that it is vital to praise children (or, for that matter, students, or employees, or virtually anyone) for the effort made in accomplishing tasks, the work required to gain conceptual understanding. Doing so, she’s convinced, goes a long way towards reinforcing what she calls a “growth mindset.”
Those in the growth mindset see themselves as a work in progress. They recognize at the outset that one’s potential for achievement is not fully fixed in advance, but rather it is firmly linked to a willingness to work hard and develop.
This view, she naturally hastens to point out, is not simply for the self-help shelves, but fully supported by modern neuroscientific views of the plasticity of the brain. Through the vital process of grappling with difficult problems and the act of struggling to make progress, we actually strengthen and reinforce vital neurological connections, thereby, as Carol puts it, “growing our brains.” Learning how to address difficult problems and master important new techniques, it turns out, literally makes us smarter.
Meanwhile, those who are mired in what she calls a “fixed mindset” believe something quite different. For them, working hard is something that only less talented (less intelligent, less gifted) people need to do, inevitably leading to a sense of complacency and unwillingness to push oneself. But it is actually much worse than that: those in the fixed mindset not only naturally shirk new challenges (why needlessly risk one’s position at the top of the hierarchy?), become so fixated on “defending their ranking” that they soon entirely stop learning and developing for its own sake. Curiosity and passion naturally fall by the wayside once one becomes preoccupied with simply keeping up appearances and reputations.
In other words, all of this goes well beyond simply mouthing platitudes about the value of hard work. Those in the fixed mindset work hard too – they expend considerable effort and suffer significant amounts of stress convincing everyone that they are naturally accomplished. It is not that they are inherently lazy or incapable of working hard. It is that their very worldview, their mindset, renders the idea of such work both distasteful and embarrassing. If working hard at mathematics, say, is something that “only stupid people do,” which currently top-ranked mathematics student would ever want to admit to anyone that she also has to struggle sometimes?
Okay, but what has this to do with praise?
Well, it turns out that telling someone, “Wow, you got 8/10. You must be really smart at this,” is a sure-fire way to reinforce a fixed mindset and lead them well and truly down the road to a fixed mindset perdition. Meanwhile, praising people for their effort – “Wow, you got 8/10. You must have worked really hard” – naturally leads them to adopt a growth mindset.
Idle speculation? Not at all. As a practicing researcher, Dweck and her colleagues were able to verify their mindset hypothesis from long hours of methodical, experimental research:
“We conducted studies with hundreds of students, mostly early adolescents. We first gave each student a set of ten fairly difficult problems from a non-verbal IQ test. They mostly did pretty well on these and when they finished we praised them. Some were praised for their ability and some for their effort.
“Both groups were exactly equal to begin with. But right after the praise, they began to differ. As we feared, the ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it too: when we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.
“In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task they could learn from.
“Then we gave the students some new hard problems, which they didn’t do so well on. After the difficult problems, the ability-praised students said it wasn’t fun anymore. Meanwhile, many of the effort-praised students said that the hard problems were the most fun.
“We then looked at student performance. After the experience with difficulty, the performance of the ability-praised students plummeted, even when we gave them some more of the easier problems. The effort-praised kids showed better and better performance. They had used the hard problems to sharpen their skills, so that when they returned to the easier ones, they were well ahead.”
These results are so intriguing not simply because they provide such a stark
experimental verification of Carol’s thesis, but also because they imply how easily subjects can slide from one mindset to another. With a bit of work and understanding, it seems, we all have it in our power to unilaterally adopt a growth mindset and begin enthusiastically embracing new challenges and opportunities.
And that would definitely be an accomplishment well worth praising.
Howard Burton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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