Jenny is a precocious 3-year-old who loves to paint. At the moment, she’s leaning over her art table, immersed in the vibrant purples and reds of her latest portrait of Gonzo, the family dog. Satisfied at last, she holds up her still-dripping paper canvas and shouts out with pride:
Daddy, daddy, look at my painting!
Teddy, Jenny’s conscientious and adorning dad, turns around and exclaims with amazement:
Wow, honey, it’s absolutely beautiful. You’re such a great artist.
Without knowing it, Teddy has just made a huge mistake in the way he praised his daughter. And if it becomes a habit, this way of responding to his daughter’s accomplishments may erode both her confidence and creativity.
Thankfully, there’s a better way—and just a small shift in language can make all the difference.
Think carefully about what, exactly, you’re praising
At first blush, it seems like Teddy’s response to his daughter’s painting is positive, encouraging, and supportive—exactly the kind of thing any good parent would say when presented with their children’s accomplishments.
But take a moment and look at Teddy’s response again:
Wow, honey, it’s beautiful. You’re a great artist!
What exactly is being praised here? If you think about it, Teddy is praising the thing his child produced and her ability as an artist. And perhaps more importantly, notice what he’s not praising – the process of working to create a piece of art. Consequently, the message little Jenny learns is I get praised when I produce beautiful art and when people think I’m a great artist. As opposed to, I get praised for working hard to create art.
See the difference?
The problem is that Jenny is learning to value herself based on factors that are outside of her control. She can’t control whether people will value what she creates any more than she can control whether people think she’s a great artist. Consequently, she’s learning that her self-worth comes from outside of her, usually from other people’s opinions of her abilities and what she produces.
That’s a dangerous belief system to cultivate in a child, however unintentional. It’s a set-up for poor self-worth and low confidence. And in my experience as a psychologist, this is exactly the kind of mindset that makes people vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and chronic low self-esteem.
Praise your kids for what they do, not who they are
If Teddy praising his daughter’s artwork and ability as an artist isn’t a great idea, what should he praise?
If our goal is to raise confident, self-assured kids who don’t rely on the opinions of others for their sense of self-worth, we should probably teach them to base their self-worth on something else. Ideally, something they have control over – something they can actually work to foster and cultivate.
Effort is a good candidate.
Do you want your teenage son to only feel good about himself when he gets straight As in school and scores touchdowns? Or do you want him to feel good about himself because he studies diligently and stays late after practice to do extra passing drills?
Do you want your 21-year-old daughter to only feel good about herself because people think she’s pretty and has a great eye for fashion? Or do you want her to feel good about herself because she writes passionate op-eds for her campus paper and volunteers on weekends tutoring kids with dyslexia?
When a child learns through years of repetition that the most important people in their life value them for their natural abilities and the things they produce, they can develop what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset have a strong psychological need to prove themselves over and over again in order to feel worthwhile and confident. Not only does this make them vulnerable to emotional struggles like depression and anxiety, but it severely constrains their ability to express themselves honestly, with passion and creativity.
On the other hand, when kids grow up being praised for their actions and what they do, they have a better chance of developing a growth mindset and the confidence to stretch themselves creatively and persevere with what they believe in. When we believe strongly that our abilities and self-worth are the result of what we do and how we act, we have the capacity to thrive in even the most challenging of circumstances and setbacks.
Learning to see our kids with fresh eyes
I think most of us parents want to raise kids who are confident enough to persevere even when it’s tough and brave enough to express themselves honestly. Our work as parents starts with the smallest details of language.
The next time your kid shows off a new piece of art, a catchy guitar riff, or a highlight from Friday’s big game, try to see effort and behavior instead of abilities and outcomes. Tell them how proud you are of all the time they put into practicing or how they tried different solutions until they found one that worked.
With a small shift in the words we use to praise our kids, we can give them the greatest gift any parent can give a child—the confidence to be exactly who they are.