We all want to praise our kids, because we believe that encouraging them will boost their self esteem and their performance. But the wrong kind of praise can actually do more harm than good.
Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck's research with middle schoolers, called the "Dweck Mindset," found that kids who were encouraged to work hard and with enthusiasm—a "growth" mindset—were more successful than kids who were taught that their intelligence was "fixed" and were praised for their talent rather than their effort.
So how do you give appropriate praise and promote a growth mindset in young athletes?
First, avoid calling your kids talented or gifted at all costs. This gives them the impression that they have innate ability. It creates a fixed mindset—if talent is innate, hard work has no real impact.
If kids have this mindset and find their talent lacking at some point, they will give up. They have "run out of talent." So-called "talented" kids will choose easier tasks, those that reinforce the exalted designation they've been given. Beating people and coming in first become more important to them than improvement and growth.
Fear of Failure Creates Failure
If your children hear you say they are brilliant and talented, they will start to believe that is why you admire or are proud of them; and they will think, "I'd better not do anything to disprove your evaluation." As a result, they enter a fixed mindset, play it safe in the future and limit the growth of their abilities.
Instead, encourage your kids to stretch themselves, to tackle hard tasks, and praise them for their passion and effort. Those things say to a young athlete that you support their growth and development. If they don't challenge themselves, they won't grow, and their coaches won't admire and praise them. Poor performances are not about winning or losing. They are about failing to execute effectively.
The Most Important Word in a Parent's Dictionary
With an emphasis on learning, there is no failure unless the athlete fails to learn from experience. To bring this home, it's a good idea to use the word "yet" more often.
"Yet" means you haven't finished. If your kid makes a binary statement, add "yet" to it.
- I'm not good at ... yet
- I can't do ... yet
- I tried ... but it didn't work yet
Once you've changed how you talk to your kid, you need to change how you talk about other people. Praise the way they train and how hard they work, and link their performance to their effort. Do this whether you are talking about one of your kid's teammates or a pro like Peyton Manning.
Fixed vs. Growth
Listen for the messages in the following examples:
- "You learned that so quickly! You're so smart!"
- "Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?"
- "You're so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!"
If you're like most parents, you hear these as supportive, esteem-boosting messages. But look again. See if you can guess what your kids will hear:
- "If I don't learn something quickly, I'm not smart."
- "I shouldn't try drawing anything hard or they'll see I'm no Picasso."
- "I'd better quit studying or they won't think I'm brilliant."
With the Dweck Mindset, you still encourage your kids to perform to the best of their abilities, but you remain realistic about their performance and how it came about. You create an environment where your kids can challenge themselves against better people and strive to be the best. And that, my fellow parents, is what creates champions.
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