My mother is praising my son the wrong way

I was blessed with my first-born one-and-half years ago. Like all grandparents, my mother loves him with all her heart and finds Wesley to be the cutest and smartest baby she has ever laid her eyes on. She is always ready to praise him when he does anything, be it make unintelligible noise or touch a spoon. The words “WA! SO CLEVER!” echoes through the house whenever she visits. But I’m worried she’s doing it the wrong way.

I appreciate her unconditional love for my child. The difference is I prefer to commend the effort made rather than his supposed inborn ability.

According to Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s research in 1998, praising ability or intelligence can have a negative impact on a child’s motivation.

Praises such as “You’re a natural artist,” “You must be very smart” or “You’ve got the clever genes” focus on inherent talent. Children praised this way are more likely to view that ability is innate. They are less likely to try hard, since a challenge is either doable easily, or cannot be done. They are also less likely to take up challenges, since failure would mean they are not “smart”.

This results in a fixed mindset, according to Dwek in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. A fixed mindset is one where we think we can do something only because of our innate ability, while a growth mindset is one where we believe a person can do anything if he puts his heart to it, the Stanford professor of psychology said in her book.

People with fixed mindsets have the need to look smart. Since success or failure is so tightly tied to their identity, they tend to develop an irrational fear of failure and take fewer risks. Children with fixed mindsets may do well in previous exams, but then lack the courage and motivation to try the harder questions, which will eventually hamper their development.

People with growth mindsets believe that success is a result of effort rather than just raw talent. So, these people work hard to constantly grow and improve. Failures are taken well, because they understand that it is inevitable with any endeavour. Setbacks are treated as learning opportunities. Since success and failure are seen as separate from their identities, people with the growth mindset tend to embrace challenges.

I have seen people who haven’t done well in their childhood become very successful professionals or businessmen because they have growth mindsets. Thomas Edison who was labelled dumb by his school teachers, went on to be the world’s greatest inventors and founded General Electric. Closer to home, Benny Se Teo was a former convict who went on to start a chain of five restaurants.

Another example can be seen in class. Children with fixed mindsets tend not to ask questions. They nod along, pretending to understand the material for fear of looking dumb. Children with growth mindsets, on the other hand, do not hesitate to ask when they don’t understand. Sometimes they are not even aware how smart or dumb asking the question makes them look.

This is why I believe praise should be based on effort and the process. Research suggests the following three ways to be most effective in enhancing a flexible mindset for our children.

1. Praise the effort, not the talent. Focus on the process, not the child. When your child does well in an exam, by all means, show that you’re happy and acknowledge the achievements, but avoid using phrases such as “you’re so smart.”

Instead, say something more descriptive like “You’ve studied really hard for this and I’m happy you did well!” If the attempt was a failure (like a really bad painting), instead of saying “You don’t have the talent for this” give suggestions on improvements, such as “That was a good effort. Perhaps we can study how other painters paint faces?”

2. Be specific. When your kid builds a really good paper plane, don’t just say, “Wow, nice plane.” You can make observations on how your kid was carefully folding the paper, how precise the folds are, how sharp he made the angles and even how the plane is balanced in flight. The specific feedback not only tells the kid that you appreciate the thought that went into the plane, but also that it’s not just the end result that matters.

3. Be genuine. False praise is damaging. Kids know when you’re sincere. They may think you feel sorry for them or that you’re trying to manipulate them. So avoid frequent and effusive praise. Similarly, don’t praise low-challenge activities, failures or mistakes. It’s much better to point out where the mistakes are or how they can improve on their failures.

Wes is definitely lucky to have grandparents who swoon over him and are constantly in awe of his achievements. I can’t and won’t try to change the way my mum shows her affection. I just hope my parenting philosophy will groom him to be someone who will constantly seek and overcome challenges.

Wallace is a trader who teaches Maths and Science over the weekends because he loves children. He started this project with his buddy Wei, a reporter, who teaches English on Fridays and Saturdays.

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