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What Do We Tell the Kids?

You have a bright child, and you want her to succeed. You should tell her how smart she is, right?

That’s what 85 percent of the parents Dweck surveyed said. Her research on fifth graders shows otherwise. Labels, even though positive, can be harmful. They may instill a fixed mind-set and all the baggage that goes with it, from performance anxiety to a tendency to give up quickly. Well-meaning words can sap children’s motivation and enjoyment of learning and undermine their performance. While Dweck’s study focused on intelligence praise, she says her conclusions hold true for all talents and abilities.

Here are Dweck’s tips from Mindset:

  • Listen to what you say to your kids, with an ear toward the messages you’re sending about mind-set.
  • Instead of praising children’s intelligence or talent, focus on the processes they used.

    Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”

    Example: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”

    Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”

  • When your child messes up, give constructive criticism—feedback that helps the child understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.
  • Pay attention to the goals you set for your children; having innate talent is not a goal, but expanding skills and knowledge is.

Don’t worry about praising your children for their inherent goodness, though. It’s important for children to learn they’re basically good and that their parents love them unconditionally, Dweck says. “The problem arises when parents praise children in a way that makes them feel that they’re good and love-worthy only when they behave in particular ways that please the parents.”

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