“You’re so smart!”
We often say these praises to our kids to try and boost their self-esteem. Or maybe we say it because we’re on autopilot and it’s the first thing that comes out. Or maybe it’s automatic because that’s what we heard when we were growing up and it seems like the thing we are supposed to say because we LOVE OUR KIDS.
There’s more and more research that shows these outcome based “praise-phrases” may be impacting our kid’s self esteem, but not the way we intended.
Short story short?
Praise should focus on the process, instead of the outcome.
Praise emphasizing effort supports a growth mindset, or the belief that skills are developed through hard work¹. Those with a growth mindset care about learning, correcting mistakes, and giving effort. Individuals with growth mindsets also increase their efforts and try new strategies when challenged.
Praise emphasizing intelligence or outcome promotes a fixed mindset, or the belief that skills are fixed or something you just have¹. Those with a fixed mindset worry about being judged for their intelligence, reject learning experiences due to fear of mistakes, hide mistakes, and decrease efforts in the face of setbacks. Individuals with fixed mindsets can also avoid effort because they believe that effort shouldn’t be needed if they have the skills.
Check out this infographic for a visual comparison between growth vs fixed mindsets.
Now if you are freaking out, take a deep breath. This info isn’t meant to shame you as a parent or tell you you're messing up. The more we learn, the more we can be intentional about how we talk to our kids and maybe change our phrasing (check out that growth mindset, eh?). And/but this is a HARD habit to break. We’re right there with you trying to adjust!
Ready for the long story long?
Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets
Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University, conducted research in 2007 on the effects of praise on motivation and resilience in children. After 5th graders completed an initial easy IQ test, they were either provided praise for their effort (“you must have worked hard”) or their intelligence (“you must be smart”).
Students praised for effort demonstrated a growth mindset
Students praised for intelligence demonstrated a fixed mindset
How did they find this?
After the students completed the initial easy test and were either praised for effort or intelligence, they were given the choice between completing an additional challenging or easy task.
Most students praised for effort wanted the challenging task so they could learn
Most students praised for intelligence chose the easy task that they knew they would do well on
Then, all the students were provided a challenging task.
Overall, students praised for effort worked harder and longer with more enjoyment
Overall, students praised for intelligence gave up more quickly
Finally, all the students were provided an easy task again.
Overall, students praised for effort demonstrated improved performance
Overall, students praised for intelligence demonstrated decreased performance
Carol Dweck conducted another study in 2007 on the effects of a growth mindset intervention versus study skills for students demonstrating plummeting grades during their transition to 7th grade¹. Students taught a growth mindset showed improved grades, whereas students taught study skills continued to show decline. Check out this YouTube video that summarizes Carol Dweck’s research. You can also listen to Carol Dweck’s TED talk about growth mindset here.
Ultimately, research supports providing praise for a child’s process, effort, improvement, perseverance, focus, and use of strategies. Less emphasis on the outcome can help support children to be more resilient and motivated.
Why “Good Job” Might Not Be so Good
Alfie Kohn, a lecturer and author in parenting, education, and human behavior, has compiled a variety of studies from professors of Education and Psychology. The literature review shows that verbal praises such as “good job” may lead to the following³:
Manipulation: Children may be verbally praised for compliance, or behaviors that benefit adults. Who really benefits from a child who can eat without spilling?
Dependence: Children may increase their dependence on verbal praise instead of forming their own judgements. They are less likely to continue with challenging tasks, share their ideas, or feel secure in their ideas.
Decreased pleasure: “Good job” tells a child how they should feel. Instead of thinking, “I did it!” they may instead hesitate and wonder, “Was that good?”
Loss of interest: Children may lose interest in an activity after attention or praise is withdrawn. They may also focus more on the praise than the actual activity itself.
Reduced achievement: Praise may create pressure to continue “great work,” which may actually hinder performance.
What to Say Instead of “Good Job”
Saying “good job” is a hard habit to break! Start with being gentle with yourself - you WILL still say “good job” and “great work” and that’s ok. The next step is to build self awareness - notice (without the pressure of changing anything at first) how many times you praise your kid with phrases like “good job.” Observe and notice and try not to judge yourself!
Then, when you’re ready, check out these alternative ways to respond to your children. Just choose one or two that you like to swap out this week. It’s ok if it’s a slow process!
Smile and nod.
Wait to see what your child has to say or what they continue to do.
A hug or a pat on the shoulder.
Say what you see
That was great how you climbed up the ladder!
You tied your shoes all by yourself!
That’s a tall tower!
Focus on the process
You must have worked so hard!
You were so patient!
I remember when you said this was hard, and now you can do it yourself!
Can you tell me about this?
How did you do it?
What was the hardest/easiest part?
How do you feel?
Check out this resource for more alternatives to “good job”!
Love research? We do too!
1. Dweck, C. (2007). The Perils and Promises of Praise. Educational Leadership, 65, 34-39.
2. Hargis, A. BREAK THE "GOOD JOB" HABIT WITH THESE 21 ALTERNATIVES. Retrieved from https://www.childoftheredwoods.com/articles/good-job
3. Kohn, Alfie. (2001). Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!". Young Children. 56.