Parents and educators can help children handle life’s challenges by tailoring how they give praise.
Be Genuine and Specific
Offer praise that is genuine and specific, both of which make the feedback more meaningful to children. For example, instead of “You played great!” after a soccer match, the praise could be, “You did a great job passing the ball to your teammates.”
“Inflated” praise may even be harmful to some children: some studies show those with low self-esteem actually shrank from new challenges when adults said things like “you’re incredibly good at this” versus merely saying “you’re good at this.”
Focus on Process vs Ability
Reinforce aspects of the learning process and genuine efforts at improvement rather than merely praising innate ability. (There is evidence that children praised for innate abilities tend to avoid areas where they can’t easily shine.)
To counteract this, instead of saying, “Well done. You’re so good at math,” the response could be, “Well done. You sat and worked for half an hour without getting distracted and you got all your homework done.” This approach also fits with a more current understanding of brain plasticity, which suggests even if abilities are not innate, they can be learned.
Be OK with some Risk, Failure, and Struggle
Other suggestions for building “resilient” confidence:
1. Let them take risks.
Instead of rescuing children from failure, allow them to make mistakes and learn. One woman who was consciously trying to support her child in this way described watching her two year old struggle with a huge bottle of juice at an event. He did pour the juice all over the floor. He also found a waitress, asked for a paper towel, and cleaned up his mess, teaching himself and his mom that he was very capable, and he didn’t need to be perfect.
2. Practice failing.
Even when children aren’t able to easily fix a mistake, remind them that they may have failed, but it doesn’t mean they are a failure. (You can remind them that the secret to success is to “fall down seven times, get up eight.”) Help them assess what happened and what they could do differently in the future. Then give them opportunities to try it again. At the same time, model healthy responses to your own failures and theirs.
3. Encourage their interests.
Help children take on tasks that appeal to them — and if they get stuck, help them work their way through their stuckness, so they learn how to work toward and achieve their own goals, even if they are not easy.
How Praise Can Motivate - or Stifle
"How does the mind work—and especially how does it learn? Teachers' instructional decisions are based on a mix of theories learned in teacher education, trial and error, craft knowledge, and gut instinct. Such gut knowledge often serves us well, but is there anything sturdier to rely on?"
The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.
Dr. Norman Doidge talks about neuroplasticity, which is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. (video)