Giving Good Praise to Girls: What Messages Stick

| April 24, 2013 | 118 Comments
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How to praise kids: It’s a hot topic for many parents and educators. A lot of the conversation around it has stemmed from studies by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford who has been researching this specific topic for many years.

“My research shows that praise for intelligence or ability backfires,” said Dweck, who co-authored a seminal research paper on the effects of praise on motivation and performance. “What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.”

But what some might not know is that this paradox is strongest for girls.

Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.

“Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail.

[RELATED READING: Girls and Math: Busting the Stereotype]

“We have research showing that women who believe math is an acquired set of skills, not a gift you have or don’t have, fare very well,” Dweck said. “Even when they have a period of difficulty and even when they’re in an environment that they say is full of negative stereotyping.” This research suggests parents and educators should rethink what implicit and explicit messages are being sent to young girls about achievement.

If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will show resilience. It also might help to provide a roadmap to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.

“The kids who are getting this process praise, those are the kids who want the challenge.”

Dweck has found that socialization and beliefs about learning ability are developed at early ages. “Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later,” Dweck said. “It doesn’t mean it is set in stone, but it means that kind of value system — what you’re praising, what you say is important — it’s sinking in. And the kids who are getting this process praise, strategy and taking on hard things and sticking to them, those are the kids who want the challenge.”

Dweck understands it isn’t easy to praise process and emphasize the fun in challenging situations. Kids like direct praise, but to Dweck lauding achievement is like feeding them junk food – it’s bad for them.

[RELATED READING: How Important is Grit in Student Achievement?]

An implicit argument here is that failure in small doses is good. Dweck’s not the first person to make that argument; advocates of game-based learning say one of its strongest attributes lies in a player’s ability to fail and start over without being stigmatized. Students learn as they go, getting better each time they attempt a task in the game. But the current education system leaves little room for failure, and consequently anxious parents often don’t tolerate small setbacks either.

“If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that’s part of learning, and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that’s really useful,” Dweck said.

She believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all.

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  • Sacramento

    This is a great piece. Even top ncaa men and women basketball teams utilize carol dwecks teachings. Specifically from “Growth Mindset” by professor dweck.

    • LT

      I agree…I play for a Division one basketball team and we apply this to our practices all the time. Our coach gives us a goal and says “we need 5 excellent possessions of offense” and gives us a time to complete it. In these drills what matters is the process not the outcome. We could make a shot but if we didn’t run the offense correctly or didn’t take a disciplined shot we don’t get to count it as excellent. On the other hand if we run everything correctly and well, but miss the shot we can earn an “excellent” count because the process was correct and it’s unrealistic to expect us to make every shot. Our coach is always quick to praise our processes not just our end successes.

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  • Petaluma

    Really interesting! Dweck’s perspective may also be helpful for adults. As we talk ourselves through the day, we can focus on valuing effort and persistence rather than quick, easy achievements.

  • http://twitter.com/mzteachuh Melanie Taylor, M.Ed

    It can also change the classroom climate for the positive when girls are encouraged. And at home, an occasional, ‘You are a beautiful girl’ works like miracle grow for the soul.

    • Arreyn Grey

      Or better yet, the occasional, “You’re so determined,” or “I love your initiative.” Things that don’t just focus on her looks. I was told I was beautiful frequently; it wasn’t until I grew up that I really learned to value anything else about myself.

      • AnonyMISS

        deserteacher said “occasional”, not frequent. Everyone likes to hear they look nice now and then. But hearing that you are smart and can figure things out….that’s even better.

        • deserteacher

          I was always validated for academic work–and that has paid off with confidence. But validating the value of the whole person will also create confidence for life’s challenges in general.

          • Rhonda

            Beauty does not make a person “whole”. Who cares what she looks like and the fact you use gender makes it even more disparaging as if “girls” are valued for beauty only….hmmm I wonder what she will grow up thinking about that?

    • Superman88

      But, I don’t want to lie to the poor girl…

      • deserteacher

        Well, Superman, every student has positives. We teachers comment on them.

    • Betsy

      I knew I was smart. I desperately wanted somebody to tell me I was pretty.

    • Nathan

      I was thinking about this. Perhaps the same advice should be applied with regard to appearance. Just as you shouldn’t tell a kid they’re smart, don’t tell them they’re pretty/handsome.

      Praise process: You brushed your hair, it looks lovely. That shirt looks good with those pants. I really like what you did with your outfit. That way any kid, no matter what their natural beauty, can learn to make the best of what they have and make an effort to be presentable, without self-identifying as “pretty,” “homely,” “ugly” etc.

  • Lori Ferrick

    You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re
    not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how
    smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty,
    trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over
    time.”
    I agree with this 100% ,..
    We don’t necessarily need to hear how smart we are, but how well battle the challenge. Our minds need feel “We” have control over the situation not the situation itself. “Smart” varies from day to day. And can never be on relied on.

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  • Sharon Bender

    Praise is always a tricky thing. To create a positive atmosphere in the classroom, students need to know what they are doing right. Reacting only to what they do wrong creates the wrong mood. The key is to focus on the work they do not on whether they are smart or look good but on the quality of the work and the level of effort. Encouraging effort and not allowing not trying is the way to go. Once they see trying creates success they are more likely to make a greater effort in the future.

    • ali

      It is interesting for me to read that every comment relates to a comparison to others . درب اتوماتیک

  • Debbie McLaughlin

    How does “failure” play out in a school or educational system where so much of what one does, almost everything actually, is graded? Even formative assessments. Traditional grading practices seem to put learners in a bind: we tell them that failure will help them be resilient, but when the failures show up as grades, that forever remain and fold up into a bigger grade, how much room is there for a cycle of practice-fail-practice-succeed? I would like to see a conversation about the impact of grades on motivation, resilience, and achievement. There is data about this, isn’t there?

    • Susan E

      I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but our middle and high school have a retake policy on most tests — sometimes even final exams. The kids can retake a test if they want a better grade. I’m not sure it really works as it should, but theoretically, my daughter could get a D, get help understanding what she did wrong from the teacher and re-study, and go on to get a better grade by retaking the test.

      • NQ

        American high and middle schools do, even universities. But we are not all American on the Internet.

      • Greenthumb2

        I have never been in a class where the policy was that you could retake a test if you did poorly. If the entire class did poorly on a homework assignment or one question on something, then we would be able to go back and do it again or be given credit since the teacher clearly did not teach it correctly. I am about to finish college now so I don’t know if this is a new thing or not. However, none of my younger siblings have ever mentioned this either. I can perhaps see it being used in a case of failing or passing a class, but that’s it.

        It certainly has potential to help, but also to harm. I can see all too many people abusing that policy. But it would also help others who, like me, often think we know something until we are tested on it, then realize we didn’t know it so well after all. I think it would have to be on a case by case basis. But even then there could be uproar and claims of favoritism if that were implemented. It would be a tricky balancing act.

        As for the article, I can mostly agree with the idea. I also like to have good feedback at the end of a project or assignment. But I was one of those who’s self worth got wrapped up in requiring good grades. And when I started failing classes, my confidence was severely hurt and it took me a long time to realize I was not my grade scores. And it would be nice if they author had provided a few examples. I am having trouble imagining what praising a mathematical process would look like. Either it works or it doesn’t. Maybe praising steps, but even that is fail or not.

    • Leah

      I’m a teacher, and I teach with a corrective grading process. It’s not a retake process. Rather, I have the students routinely correct their work, make additions, etc. I also have them reflect on their learning process. This is a start toward having a system where failure is okay.

      Also, all my homework is graded on a completion basis. Did you put in a good faith effort? Awesome! Then, students ask questions in class, and we make corrections together.

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  • maryam

    I agree with the praise of children, especially girls., I’m a girl and I praised her daughter’s success is very effective. Way to show the children, using the most punishing will praise the way.

    my link:درب ضد سرقت

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  • NancyEH

    When there isn’t a lot of time to engage in discussing strategies for coping with failure or disappointment, a couple of specific examples of good wording would have been helpful. Is “good work” OK? How about “Nice going”?

    • Laura Wenham

      Specific praise is better – “You did a good job of buttoning your coat on your own this morning. You missed one button, so let’s practice buttoning again. Can you see which button you missed? Which buttons do you need to move to fix it?” “You drew a great drawing but a little bit got on the table. What could we do next time to keep the table clean?” Sets up the idea that it’s not a big deal to make a mistake, that you need to evaluate what didn’t work, and figure out how to fix it. Much better problem solving skills, and emphasizes that there are solutions, such as practicing and thinking ahead, that may be required to solve the problem.

      • Mildred C. Holcomb-Allen

        If the child did a good job, why was one button missed and the work had to be done over?

        I heard of a story once where a mother was always fixing and straightening things on her child…in other words “telling” the child that s/he wasn’t perfect. A child that is consistently told this would think s/he was never good enough.

        I think praise should be used sparingly, and encouragement should be used constantly!

        • Stacy Lorentson

          I agree, Mildred. A child who is told, “You did a good/great job, but…” or “This looks fantastic, but…” will begin to feel like good, great and fantastic are never good enough. The end result will be a child, and eventually adult, who believes they can never measure up.

          • Mildred C. Holcomb-Allen

            I went to a teachers’ workshop once where the lady was talking about the word “but” as used in conversation. She said that the first part of the sentence is good “news”, and the second part…after the but…is a negative statement. Guess which part of the sentence is remembered most? I had never thought about that before. The leader said, “Keep the ‘buts’ out of the conversation! Interesting!

  • Léo Lee

    I learned something similar when I was taught how to teach. I “only” teach art, but we were always told never to praise the work or the child in a final, qualitative way (if i am using that word right). SO we’d never say “You did a great job” or “That is a beautiful picture”. The comments must always give something to build on: “Those colors work well together” or “Your struggle to get this right is apparent and these tentative marks next to the bold ones show the viewer…” Anyway, it was strongly drilled in us that comments that help a child understand their process, and identify the strong elements and weak elements was the only way to give feedback.

    • Mark

      You never ‘only’ teach art. You teach problem solving and emotional expression through creativity. You teach kids how to have a voice and how to share it.

    • anongirl2012

      That’s great that you praise the process. I wouldn’t say, “Your struggle is apparent,” though. I think that would make the child feel bad, like you are saying, “You were struggling, and it was obvious.” Even as an adult, if my boss or someone said it was apparent I struggled, I would not feel good about what he or she was saying…

      • good coop

        I work in a behavior LAB (learning appropriate behavior) for elementary students. We (teachers and students) make comments when others are having a hard time during the process. ” What is so changeling ( or upsetting) to you about this activity?” I might inquire. Or a simple, “Are you stuck?”, lets (the kids) realize that you are teaching, “a process”, and observing and supporting their learning. As with all learning…..intense emotions need time to calm so we can attend to the task. With completion of a challenge, we all rejoice and laugh together! One student might have much difficulty admitting, “oops! I make a mistake.” And then reflect, I don’t know why that was so hard to say……..

      • Service-is-the-rent-we-pay

        I agree. I see “struggle” as an important, valuable, necessary process that every person should be a part of in order to become more resilient. Struggle should be sought out, not avoided. To me the best compliment roughly amounts to, “Clearly you struggled with _____, but you worked really hard, you overcame those challenges and you accomplished so much.”

    • Lin

      This makes so much sense and explains why I enjoyed the feedback from my art teachers. I never realized how it helped me build resilience in life. Thank you for your insight.

    • MooseInOly

      I don’t fully agree with this particular approach. Doesn’t this start on the path of “never being good enough”? If it is a beautiful picture then why can’t you say so? Why can’t the end product be quantative in praise? If every project I ever finished in my professional career was judged and feedback given along the path that was stated above, I’d find a new career. A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the butt, yet is miles away in results.

      • 2nd year teacher

        I’ve read a significant amount of Dweck’s work, and it definitely impacts the way I praise in my teaching – there is a lot of good stuff there. But I also wonder if it varies from child to child. I think that praising process is probably always a good thing to do. However, I don’t think praising students with more static compliments like “smart,” “compassionate,” or “creative” is necessarily harmful, especially if it’s in combination with process praise. I haven’t done all the research Dweck has, but I think making a child feel genuinely loved and appreciated (however the compliment is worded) has positive value, even if it doesn’t directly correlate with persistence and problem solving skills.

  • Danielle Fuligni McKay

    Process praise + acknowledgement of who our daughters are being in choosing challenge, trying hard, getting back up (e.g. courageous, persistent, resilient) = recipe for lasting self confidence! For more, visit me at http://www.mygirlcoaching.com

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  • Rudy

    I was in a second grade elementary school in Houston Tx in the 70s. I had very poor grades and a speech impediment. My parents were told I was slow and were advised to have me repeat the second grade. My older brother and sister were Honor Roll students all through school. My parents knew that I was not slow, yet understood that I did not learn as quickly as my siblings. At 43 yrs of age I can still hear my mother and father encouraging me to always give my best, 110%, never quit, never give up. If you fall get up, you never fail if you’ve learned a lesson, it’s not over until I win. They always praised my efforts more than the results. I carried that determination with me in everything I’ve done. I have an attic full of trophies, plaques, certificates, awards, achievements etc. from everything I’ve ever done. My annual income is close to 250K a year. I give morning meetings where I motivate and teach others to be successful in business. I have a wonderful family full of love and joy. My oldest daughter finished High School a year early and off to college. My youngest daughter will start taking college classes at 14 yrs of age. My son is following right in their footsteps.
    That’s not bad for a slow kid from Houston.
    ABILITY and TALENT are worthless without PERSISTENCE and ATTITUDE.

    • Eva

      Cannot agree with you more. Thumbs up to you. Hard work and persistence is more predictive to success than talent.

    • Kerry

      This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing!

    • Emilie

      My sister could relate a lot with you! I can still hear my parents telling her the exact same thing your parent said to you. Now that I have a daughter, I’m trying to encourage her to persist and never give up.

    • Mildred C. Holcomb-Allen

      …and may I add…encouragement! This is a great story!

    • a635823

      This is really cool, my “I suck moment ” happened in 4th grade when my female teacher kicked me out of math group A into math group B in our class because I could not long divide for the life of me. It was devastating, my best friend was in the smart group and i was in the “dumb kid” group (we weren’t so mature then.) I was in the GATE program for years but I lost all of my self esteem after that in math. But in high school and college my best friend, who is a girl, was a 1000x better at math than I and she motivated me to keep at it, and hello we’ve known each other since 4th grade if i ever wanted to hang out with her again in school i needed to stay in the smart kid classes with her. So fast forward and now that I’m 27 and done with the undergrad and am working on a grad degree. I tutor kids in math and science! I want to show all girls that they can do it! I feel that we just need to make girls expect that they will be good at math.

      • stoof

        Wow that is almost exactly where I can pinpoint my downfall in academics. I got kicked out of the advanced math class in 6th grade for failing an assignment and since then have always said ‘numbers just aren’t my thing.’ Unfortunately I really proved this study right. Overcame this feeling of inferiority and I did not.

    • kubkwrm

      and yet, you’re so humble.

      • Please

        Oh don’t be so cute

    • Thomas

      And yet you failed to grasp the point of the article.

    • Kim

      Thank you for sharing. I read your comment to my 10 and 12 year old around the dinner table last night. Honestly I liked it even better than the article! Your words were heartfelt, meaningful and sparked a great conversation. Thank you for highlighting the traits I want to model and encourage in my kids.

    • Mark Daniels

      Anyone can do anything academically. Every skill can be learned. Even complex things like law, or medicine, can be learned if you just follow a step by step process.

      These days there are books explaining how to breaj down arguments fro law school aptitude tests. Even people with bad reasoning skills can follow these steps.

      So I agree.

      I’m a moron and have a post graduate degree in molecular medicine from the 2nd best institution in the world….. trust me, If I can do it.. Anyone can.

    • Brag Police

      Oh, lol. Tell me more.

    • heathers

      That is a great story!! Go you! You are allowed to be proud of yourself and share your greatness. We need to learn to be happy for happy people. You beat the odds. (:

  • anongirl2012

    I disagree with the last paragraph. Meals should be upbeat and positive. Kids shouldn’t be expected to share their struggles, problems, and feelings with everyone at the table. The rest of the article makes good sense, though.

    • snowgirl

      I disagree, that perpetuates the idea that struggling is something to be ashamed of or hidden. The family support and encouragement are invaluable, both in terms of exploring solutions as well as giving the child confidence to seek help.

      • Iowacounts

        As long as it’s kept in positive atmosphere. I hated the dinner table because it would always come down to being reprimmanded about something I wasn’t doing well enough at. Therefore I learned not to share to avoid problems/being hurt/made to feel stupid.:(

  • Susan

    A SpEd instructor touted that it is important to praise/encourage in a manner such that the learner will not come to rely on praise for their self-worth. For example, the phrase “You must be proud of that” is not a judgement; it makes the learner responsible for their praise. I have found often, especially in math, many kids understand more than they think they do. I will often tell them, “You’ve got this–trust yourself.”

  • Ulla

    It is interesting for me to read that every comment relates to a comparison to others and does not encourage reflection with oneself. Are you happy with your work? Or I think this is nice what do you think? …..

  • Paula Popper

    I would have liked to see a few examples of phrasing in praise that shifts the message to the positive qualities discussed here. I am getting the concept, just not the application.

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  • SGN

    “I can see you worked hard at that! Are you happy with how it turned out?” lights up the face of every child you say it to. They then hasten to tell you all about their process and that gives you many opportunities to slip in the problem-solving questions that get them thinking.

  • Jader G Z Avila

    i gave Money to my daughter to invest. all by her own. initially i gave her 15k. i was prepared to see her lose it. and to give her more for the second try. but the girl surprised me and not only did not lose the Money, she made a profit out of it. the best incentive is to teach commerce and how to make Money.

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  • Cecilia

    It all sounds like good old Maria Montessori. Don’t praise the result, but the process of getting there. And the joy of achieving the result.

  • Michaela Daniels

    i was highly encouraged in Math & Science as i grew up. the world was my laboratory. Math & Science were always my best subjects. i studied hard, was praised often. Graduated from high school at 16 (had my first associate’s – chemistry – 5 months before i graduated from high school). Had my BSN at 19, took the MCAT scoring a 39.75, currently going to medical school (started at 19). i encourage girls everywhere to study hard. It’s OK to be smart and pretty!

  • http://www.pins.uk.com/ Trisha Proud

    As the mother of two daughters I found this to be an interesting read; however I firmly believe that praise for children (in any form) and regardless of their sex is essential for their growth and general well being; I am not entirely sure that the praise approach has to be different for girls and boys; possibly different per child maybe.

    Ditto when it comes to sitting around the table discussing the day’s ‘struggles’….how depressing! Surely just sitting around the table in general discussion should be the main focus.

    Trisha Proud
    Managing Partner
    Partners in Solutions Ltd
    https://twitter.com/proudtrisha

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  • KoachnRef

    Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code & The Little Book of Talent would go a long way with the discussion in this topic. Nobody is born with more talent than another. It’s what the individual puts into their learning, despite what people say, is how talent is derived. One needs to understand really the definition of talent.

  • lindai

    This is a really good read for me. Must agree that you are one of the coolest blogger I ever saw.

    طب سنتیطب سوزنیکرکره برقیدوربین مدار بستهدرب اتوماتیکراهبنددرب اتوماتیک شیشه ایدرب ضد سرقت پارتیشن اداری

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    i really enjoyed to visit this site.it is a very nice site and i book mark ur site.

    کرکره برقیدرب اتوماتیکپارتیشن اداریسایپاطب سنتیطب سوزنیدوربین مدار بسته

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  • Andrew

    Fail forward.

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  • lisamariepavia

    I have seen this presented several times. As a parent, it can be hard to change your language habits. I’d love to see more examples of praise for perseverance and effort that sounds natural. One thing we’ve done, since the people around my daughter are always praising her for ability (teachers, relatives) is to discuss with her what “smart” means. We’ve redefined the word to mean someone who has worked hard or concentrated on something and “gotten it”. Best we can do at three.

  • selkt.sa

    i will never forget the male physics teacher, who stated on the very first class, that it’s no problem for the girls, if they are worse as boys, as girls will not understand this class as boys do. i was so relieved, and happy, when i heard 20 years later, that he left the school and became financial advisor. he should have not been allowed to teach first hand.

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  • Michtou

    As a teacher of languages, I find a lot of students struggle. I had one student for whom the grammatical differences and word order seemed like insurmountable obstacles. I told her not to worry, that it takes time for the brain to wrap itself around the new paradigms. One day, I said, things will just click into place. She stuck it out with French for three years, always struggling. One day she stood up in class and yelled “Click, click, click!” I was surprised and asked her what that was about. She said, “You told me it would all click into place, and it did! Finally!”

  • george

    I am trying to appreciate what your goal is here but I am so tired of everyone telling everyone they’re failing at being a good parent. So now the way I am complementing my kids is also wrong.

  • Sa Say

    I work with 4-H kids and their parents always say “You’re so positive!” Well, one thing I do because I know it works/worked for me is to constantly reinforce what they ARE understanding, even in the face of the things they AREN’T understanding. I make sure to let them know I appreciate how hard they are working, and, when they get an answer wrong, try to follow it up with something like “But that was a good guess” and we deconstruct why they were wrong but how their thought processes were good. We find it eventually leads to right answers because they are approaching things logically (and we deconstruct that as well!).

  • Diane

    This is so spot on – we saw that with both our girls – who were extraordinarily smart – but would think that they were dumb or not as smart as others (read: boys) when they would struggle with a subject. I wish I had read this article 10 years ago!

  • Brandy

    Wait a minute. Did you just tell me that I should treat girls different than boys because they are different? Don’t we scream for equality in the work place and board room because there is no difference between the sexes? Does this mean that we really are different creatures by design or am I just supposed to pick and choose when and what I scream for. This does not bode well for my feminazi sisters, nope, not well at all.

    • rjgwood

      You are ridiculous. Demanding equal rights, such as equal pay, does not mean that feminists think that boys and girls are not different – just that they should have access to the same rights. I guess that makes me a feminazi in your book.

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Brandy, the idea of praising process applies to all learners, not just girls. Research has shown, though, that girls are often more prone to a “fixed mindset” around subjects like math because of societal norms they incorporate into their sense of the world from very early in their lives. – Katrina

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  • http://www.askwhyfilms.com Jennifer Cunningham

    The article, 5th Grader Says Mistakes Are Not a Learning Opportunity In School, supports Katrina Schwartz’s article with a real life example.
    http://www.askwhyfilms.com/blog/5th-grader-says-mistakes-are-not-a-learning-opportunity-in-school

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