Praise and Confidence

owlIn the 90’s the culture turned a great deal of attention toward the issue of self-esteem. It became commonly understood that people who do not feel good about themselves, never reach their full potential. Of course, we all wanted our children to be the best they could be so we began praising children for everything they did in hopes that they would not doubt their abilities. We tried to create confident, self-reliant responsible human beings through our emphatic approval of every small achievement. But, it turns out that self-esteem does not work this way. And in all our attempts to make our children feel good about who they are, we actually may be undermining their confidence.

There is a fascinating study with children that has been repeated with the same results again and again. They took a bunch of kids and gave them some problems or puzzles to solve. The kids were each given one line of praise. They were told something to the effect of “Wow. You did a really great job. You must be really smart.” Or they were told “Wow. You did a really great job. You must have worked really hard.” Then the kids were offered the opportunity to either do the same puzzles again or to do a different set of problems that would be more difficult. Repeatedly, the kids who were told they were smart chose to work on the same problems. The kids who were told that they worked hard chose to do the more challenging puzzles. Over time, the kids who were praised for their intelligence began to perform poorly and they lost confidence in their task. The kids who were praised for their effort continued to improve in their abilities and appeared to enjoy the tasks more.

Isn’t this fascinating? I think this is really important information. Our attempts to make our children more confident may actually make them more fragile. If we tell our kids they are smart, they do not want to lose that status. You can imagine that they are thinking: “What if I try the harder problems and I do not score as well? Then I won’t be smart any more. I think I’ll just keep doing what I know how to do. Then everyone will think I’m smart.” When this experience is repeated daily it hinders the development of creativity and flexibility. Children do not pursue their curiosity, they are reluctant to try new things, and they grow to be fearful of making mistakes.

Once you start paying attention to these two different kinds of praise, you will be amazed at how often you and others praise your children for a “fixed trait” – that is one that does not grow over time. “Oh. What a good artist you are.” “You are an awesome soccer player.” “You’re a natural.” “You are so smart.” The list goes on and on. Instead, try praise like “I can see you have been really practicing.” “You worked really hard on that puzzle.” “I liked the way you tried something new in this drawing.” “You stuck with that until you figured it out – how wonderful!” This kind of praise encourages continued growth and development. It reinforces the need for perseverance and practice in achievement and it is more likely to instill a drive to learn and grow continually. Even if the results of a child’s labor are not what he was hoping for, continue to encourage the effort: “I really like the way you are challenging yourself to do harder things.”

One last note: make sure your praise is authentic. If you do not believe what you are saying your words will have an empty ring to them. Kids have a fantastic nose for sniffing out insincerity and will learn to disregard your remarks. Be trustworthy.


If you want to read more about “fixed mindset” and the development of children’s intelligence you can visit these websites:

Carol Dweck who pioneered this research, wrote a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Check it out if you really want to dive into the subject.


First Published 2008

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>