How Not to Talk to Your Child: Raising Confident, Well-Adjusted Kids

How Not to Talk to Your Child: Raising Confident, Well-Adjusted Kids
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path,” Morpheus of The Matrix once said. This line has a nice ring to it; however, what makes it truly special is how “walking the path,” or in real-life terms, paying attention to the learning process, comes as the foundation of healthy communication with children. Overpraising a child bears grave implications for their academic standing, especially if the praises suggest all-encompassing “greatness.” Communication should instead focus on effort and the specific aspects where the child did great. It worked for Neo, and it probably will for your kid.

This article explores how not to talk to your child as well as the positive ways you can communicate with them. In reading through the write-up, parents and educators will learn to communicate in a way that can raise students’ academic performance and help them bear a more productive mindset.

How Not to Talk to Your Child Table of Contents

  1. The Dilemma of Overpraising Kids
  2. Negative Effects of Inflated Praising
  3. Statements to Avoid
  4. What to Say Instead

The Dilemma of Overpraising Kids

Parents play a vital role in shaping a child’s behavior, development, and self-esteem (Swenson et al., 2015). As such, providing feedback and criticism would let children know which practices and behaviors they should perform, retain, and avoid. Praising is a popular form of positive reinforcement, perceived as a necessary instrument for motivation and confidence building. And praising one’s intelligence is commonplace in the American household.

According to a Columbia University survey, 85% of American parents believe that telling their kids that they are intelligent is essential to their studies. Such praises can also come in the form of adulating outcomes, (Underwood, 2020) such as high test scores or projects with high marks, and may contain superlatives and glowing adverbs (Pearson, 2014). Although this practice comes from a loving place, it does not automatically lead to positive results. In fact, inflated praising is counterproductive.

In a study by the decorated American psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck (2007), it was discovered that praising students for their intelligence leads to the development of a fixed mindset in which a learner would rather preserve the image of “smartness” than invest in actual learning. Students with this belief tend to avoid exercises where they are likely to commit mistakes and can even resort to cheating if faced with an insurmountable task. Furthermore, they view the need for much effort as a blow to their intelligence, thus they are inclined to give up when frustrated with their studies and test results.

On the other side of the coin, if learners are praised for their effort and/or the specific areas they excel, they are likely to develop a “growth mindset” in which the learning process is at the forefront (Dweck, 2007). With this, learners view effort as a means of gaining knowledge, granting them the determination and perseverance to fill in knowledge gaps and find new solutions. They also have more initiative to learn on their own rather than simply waiting for their instructor’s command to study.

Luckily, influencing the healthier academic mindset of the two is all a matter of phrasing, which will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

Negative Effects of Overpraising

In a 1998 study led by Claudia Mueller and Dweck, the effects of overpraising were telling on the approximately 400 fifth-grade students from New York schools who were given a series of IQ tests. After the first test, which was relatively easy for their grade level, a group was praised for their “intelligence” and another was praised for their “effort.” In the final test, which had the same level of difficulty as the first one, the “intelligence group” posted scores that are about 20% lower than their initial marks while the “effort group” scored around 30% higher.

How did this happen? The kind of feedback a child receives affects his or her responses to succeeding challenges. As such, there are several negative effects that stem from inflated intelligence-centric praise. These include:

Prioritizing Performance Over Learning

Performing well is ideal for any learner, but if it does not come with the backbone of learning, performance goals are reduced to topical aims, such as appearing smart or highly skilled rather than absorbing new knowledge. 67% of the children who were praised for their “intelligence” in the aforementioned study prioritized performance goals above learning (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Meanwhile, 92% of those who were praised for their effort preferred to learn more, which is a precursor to actual academic performance.

This was also made evident in a study where children were asked to draw two images (Pearson, 2014). After completing the first drawing, the kids with low self-esteem received inflated intelligence-centric praises and were given the choice between an easy sketch that did not foster new knowledge and a challenging one where they would learn new techniques and skills. Most of the kids chose the easy exercise.

Source: Mueller, C., Dweck, C.

Effort Becomes Frowned Upon

While praising kids for their intelligence, or any notable trait for that matter, can lead to a short-term boost in confidence, it might adversely affect their resilience should they face challenges that require them to exert extra effort (Dweck, 2007). Rather than seeing their shortcomings as areas for improvement, they generally view them as facts that disprove the praises they received, eroding the fragile fortress their self-esteem is built on in the long run.

No Long-Term Effect on Growth

In Dweck’s study, there was no evidence that intelligence-centric praise gave children a significant increase in confidence nor did it improve their rate of learning (Blackley, 2013). Instead, kids who receive such, in general, spend more time documenting their positive traits than actually developing them. This increases the likelihood of them not gaining the work ethic necessary to thrive later in life, since they are too focused on their positive traits rather than the labor needed to come up with solutions.

Added Pressure on Children

Drilling children with general praises like “You are smart,” “You are good,” or “You are the best” comes with the pressure to live up to those assertions. As previously mentioned, the kids who were praised for their intelligence experienced a lot of anxiety and apprehension when faced with tough test questions. In fact, it could even reach the point where kids question the sincerity or intention of forthcoming praises and dismiss them as a sign that they lack aptitude (Bronson, 2007). Furthermore, the added pressure faced by kids detracts from their studies and their focus on quizzes, which could negatively affect their academic performance.

Fosters Narcissistic Tendencies

Children with low and average self-esteem, if often subjected to inflated praise, tend to have trouble improving their grades and may develop narcissistic tendencies in the process (Dewar, 2019). After all, they are too absorbed with living up to the lofty standards suggested by the praises. Without the necessary feedback on their hard work, they are likely to focus on preserving their status quo as “smart students” rather than actually working for their grades. This does not mean that the child will not study, but it could put a damper on his or her determination to understand lengthy or complex concepts.

Builds Negative Attitude Toward Failure

Going back to Mueller and Dweck’s research (1998), the fifth graders were given a difficult test that is beyond their knowledge base. The kids who were praised for their effort appreciated the exercise as they went on to explore new ideas and possibilities despite failing the test. Some even declared that they enjoyed the task. On the other hand, the children praised for their “intelligence” were dealing with anxiety while the test was ongoing. They lost confidence and saw the exercise as proof of their perceived ineptitude. Feeling defeated, the “intelligence group” went on to post the aforesaid low scores when given an easy final test.

Furthermore, to negate the feeling of failure, cheating becomes a likely recourse. In a study of 300 Chinese students, it was discovered that 60% of children who were praised for their abilities cheated when the instructor left the classroom (Zhao, Heyman, Chen, & Lee, 2017).

Source: Zhao, Heyman, Chen, & Lee

Statements to Avoid

There is nothing wrong with positive reinforcement, but if we want our well-wishes to translate not only into better grades but also solid study habits, we should redirect them to target our children’s efforts. Doing so might even provide them with good study tips and strategies. As such, some phrases are best avoided so as to not subject them to overpraising or inflated claims that have unhealthy effects on their mindsets (Mindset Works, nd). The following phrases are classic examples of how not to talk to your child:

“You are so smart!” “You are the best!” “You are a natural.”

While statements like these are dispensed to motivate children and improve their self-esteem, they can lead to the development of a fixed mindset in which the child believes that intelligence or exemplary skill is innate, not developed (Murphy, 2016). In developing this frame of mind, they might not put as high a premium on effort and the learning process as they would on maintaining the image of smartness or being highly skilled.

In addition, adding superlatives like “best” and “greatest” to praises sets a lofty standard that a student might have trouble living up to. This adds unnecessary pressure to their already difficult tasks in school (Dewar, 2019), and, as such, learners could crumble from anxiety when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

“Don’t worry, this subject might not be for you.”

Although students have their own academic strengths and weaknesses, addressing the latter as permanent deficiencies will affect the agency of kids in finding solutions (Mindset Works, nd). They will not likely exert the necessary effort to fill their knowledge gaps on the matter. Weaknesses, after all, can become strengths with enough practice and understanding.

“You made that look easy. Great job!”

Similar to intelligence-centric praises, a statement that zones in on achievement without effort can lead to the development of an unhealthy fixed mindset (Mindset Works, nd). Giving out similar praise that instills the thought of learning as a healthy challenge will help the child view complex concepts and tough assignments as explorations in knowledge rather than treating them as problems. In this way, they will absorb new information better with less pressure.

“That must have been really tough. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do it again.”

This statement promotes the avoidance of challenges in class (Mindset Works, nd). While it is ideal for children to further strengthen their competencies, their ability to pick up new knowledge and skills is compromised if they view tough challenges in a negative light. Stimulating their curiosity while underscoring the importance of working for one’s own achievements is a better alternative.

“That’s wrong. Are you stupid? You’re probably doing nothing in class.”

Negative remarks that do not peer into the possible problems or point out the areas of improvement can perpetuate a student’s lack of motivation, possibly causing them to lose interest in the subject matter (Pankonin & Myers, 2017). The reverse of overpraising, a showering of negative feedback can also make children feel that they are not worthy of praise. This potentially leads to a fight or flight response to a tough academic challenge, which does not bode well for their grades.

What to Say Instead

Each of the aforesaid statements to avoid can be reworded to become effective feedback. The trick is to emphasize the importance of effort, curiosity, and hard work in learning so they can develop a growth mindset in which abstract concepts like skill and intelligence can be developed over time through practice (Murphy, 2016). A better understanding of lessons is also developed because the acts of research, reading, and practicing are normalized and treated as integral parts of the learning process. As such, in Dweck’s study (2007), 90% of children who received effort-centric praise opted to work on more challenging tasks.

Moreover, pointing out how solving challenges in class can expand the brain’s capacity to take in knowledge would make students understand why they are necessary and how they can help. In a study by Lisa Blackwell, students who were given a presentation on the positive effects of hard work on the brain were able to significantly raise their test scores in mathematics (Bronson, 2007).

So, what exactly are the statements that could help your child? Below, some of the positive ways to talk to your child are outlined:

“You worked really hard on that. Congratulations.”

This statement stresses that effort is necessary to excel in school, thus a child will learn to value hard work in achieving positive outcomes (Mindset Works, nd). Unlike skill- and intelligence-centric praises, a remark like this promotes the development of a growth mindset, which recognizes that intelligence can be attained through dedication and hard work (Terada, 2017).

“That didn’t work. You might want to try a different strategy.”

This remark frames every task as a puzzle that can be cracked with a suitable strategy; learners should just do the necessary reading and/or practice to come up with or stumble across the most effective solutions. Mistakes are seen as part of the learning process (Terada, 2017), particularly stumbling blocks that can be corrected through effort. In normalizing this mindset, students would be more motivated than saddened by errors as they comfortably take on the countless challenges in school.

“That was too easy. Let’s work on something more challenging to make your brain grow further.”

Easy tasks may be fun, but they do not always lead to new learning. With this, routinely emphasizing that more satisfaction can be derived from answering thought-provoking questions and completing challenging tasks allows students to view schoolwork as welcome challenges regardless of difficulty (Mindset Works, nd). Furthermore, adding hard work’s positive effects on the brain underscores the multiple benefits of studying hard. Meanwhile, mentioning “that’s too easy” to preface the statement acknowledges how far the student has come to reach their current level.

“That was tough. Your hard work has paid off. Schoolwork like this will be easier next time.”

Similar to the previous remark, this statement cultivates the value of hard work and encourages growth by normalizing effort in one’s studies (Mindset Works, nd). It also serves as motivation that succeeding will be more manageable because of the new skills and/or solutions picked up by the learner in solving the challenging task. With a mindset hinged on growth, a student will gain the resiliency needed to get through not just school, but also the rigorous tasks in the professional realm.

“That can be improved. Which topics don’t you fully understand? What methods can you try to understand them better? I’m confident that you can do it.”

Negative feedback can be framed in a way that places the learning process, not one’s shortcomings, front and center. This procedural approach lets students quickly isolate problem areas and find the solutions for themselves, without them getting overwhelmed with anxiety or feeling abandoned by their parents. It also implies that parents are confident in the skills of their child to complete a challenging task (Mindset Works, nd), which the student will pick up on.

Rephrase the Praise

Praising kids for their scholastic achievements is a healthy practice that can help them develop confidence and, more importantly, a productive mindset that benefits them not just in school, but also after they complete their college education. However, for feedback to produce these results, it should emphasize a child’s effort and their view of the learning process (Dweck & Mueller, 1998). It would also help to stress how the brain improves with continued use, which increases a child’s motivation. In fact, 27% of students who were taught such showed a significant gain.

Source: Dweck, C.

If a child is bombarded with general praises that focus on skills and traits without substantiating the specifics, it could lead to the development of a mindset in which abilities are stringently fixed per individual (Dweck, 2007). Hard work and the learning process take a backseat to preserving the image of “smartness” and “competence” suggested by the praises. A child’s resiliency in dealing with academic challenges is also compromised, as students who receive intelligence-centric praise tend to experience anxiety in quizzes (Xing, Gao, Jiang, Archer, & Liu, 2018), resort to cheating to ace tough exams (Terada, 2017), or just flat out give up.

To effectively offer your child feedback, praises should not only center on effort but also associate learning with hard work (Mindset Works, nd). In doing so, a child will foster a growth mindset defined by a positive perspective on academic challenges, a deeper appreciation of the benefits of learning, and the belief that intelligence and other competencies can be achieved if one works hard for them over time (Bronson, 2007).

We understand that it is hard to resist giving compliments to your kids, especially when they are visibly having a hard time with their studies. You can do so by all means. Just adjust the praises in a way that can truly benefit their schooling and pave the way for a buoyant future. Besides, once they have developed a growth mindset, academic challenges will become child’s play in every sense of the term.



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