Don’t tell my daughters they’re smart or beautiful

Posted: 06 Apr 2016 04:44 AM PDT
Where does a guy with limited skills go to learn how to communicate with and motivate his daughters? Back to school, of course. Like parents, teachers have to motivate their kids to pay attention, struggle through difficult tasks, and earn good marks.

Through wildly good fortune our kids have had terrific teachers. One who stands out is Mrs. Feldman, a third grade teacher at our local elementary school who’s now had two of our daughters in her class.

Our kids love Mrs. Feldman. Time and again she’s proven capable of motivating our kids to do things my wife and I sometimes find impossible: become voracious readers, enthusiastically practice math, write creative stories, and every day be excited about going to school.

How does she do it? It’s taken me awhile but at a recent Parent-Teacher conference her formula began to crystalize: She doesn’t compliment the person, rather she compliments the activity. Notice the difference between Mrs. Feldman’s compliment to our nine year old daughter, Amelia, and one that I, the bumbling parent, tend to give:

The Amazing Mrs. Feldman: “Amelia, I’m really impressed with the hard work you’ve put into your writing this year. The other day I noticed you asked for extra help and the story you wrote afterward was your best yet. I’m proud of the effort you’re making.”

Clueless Dad: “Wow, Amelia, you’re a good writer!”

Mrs. Feldman knows something that many parents don’t: Your kid’s success depends a whole lot more on his/her work ethic and willingness to try hard than it does on any natural intelligence. Mrs. Feldman doesn’t praise a child’s talent, she recognizes the child’s effort.

Mrs. Feldman is teaching me an important lesson: Do not lavishly emphasize your kid’s natural gifts. Why? Because the moment your son or daughter encounters an obstacle their God-given gifts cannot overcome, he/she’s likely to give up. Thanks to your misdirected praise, your child comes to rely too much on his/her natural gifts and not enough on his/her work ethic.

Mrs. Feldman, do you subscribe to Harvard Business Review? Here’s what social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson published a few years ago in HBR: “Gifted children [often complimented on their natural abilities and the degree to which things come easy to them] grow up to be more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident.” She continues, “The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the beliefs we develop about our abilities, including whether we see them as innate or developed through effort and practice.”

Halvorson goes on to describe a study wherein one group of kids was praised for their natural talents while another group was praised for their work ethic. Soon thereafter, each group was assigned a difficult task. The result? The “Wow, you’re a smart kid!” group quickly gave up and failed to complete the task. The “I’m proud of your work ethic” group solved the problem and appeared happier doing it.

It’s easy to pay someone a surface-level compliment, but you’re making a deeper impact by recognizing the effort instead of the result:

Instead of, “Wow, you’re fast” try, “Wow, I love to see how hard you run. Great job on the extra effort!”

Instead of, “You have beautiful hair” try, “You take good care of your hair. How do you keep it so nice?”

Instead of, “You’re a smart kid” try, “Congrats on the good grades. What’s the class that you find most challenging? I’m proud of you for making the effort to do well in that class, too.”

Are my daughters smart and beautiful? Hell yes. But please don’t tell them that. If you want to build their confidence and motivate them to be their best, follow Mrs. Feldman’s formula: Find a way to compliment their efforts instead of their natural gifts.