Praising Effort — Not Talent — Helps Kids Succeed

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Almost all parents like to think that their children are highly talented. Combining the parental desire to think well of one’s children with the desire to build up our children’s self-esteem leads to a lot of superlatives. “She’s so gifted.” “He’s a natural.” “What an amazing talent!” But research shows that if you want your kids to be good at something, one of the last things you should tell them is that they are gifted or talented. The problem with these favorable labels is that they promote popular fables. The biggest fable of all is probably that intelligence or talent is something you have at birth. You either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t have it, you’ll never be as good as those who do.

In contrast to this idea that talent is innate, decades of research by psychologists such as K. Anders Ericsson show that achieving a high level of performance in almost any arena depends far more on a devotion to deliberate practice than on innate talent. In case after case of people who look like natural talents, the full story reveals that they have put in many thousands of hours working very hard to get better and better (but not necessarily the 10,000 hours popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers). Of course, this means making lots of mistakes. To become outstanding at anything, a person must fail a lot.

In keeping with such findings — and in contrast to popular myths about raw talent — Carol Dweck and her colleagues have shown that parents and teachers should communicate to kids that failure is not self-defining. Dweck’s work shows that when parents, teachers, and children believe that success is the result of hard work — which always includes a certain amount of failure — this helps children master difficult tasks. Adopting this view of the world also helps kids keep going in the face of setbacks.

To be more specific, Dweck shows that most people hold one of two beliefs about ability. Some people hold an “entity theory.” They believe their abilities are unchangeable: “You have a certain amount of intelligence or talent and that’s that.” In contrast, other people hold an “incremental theory.” These people believe that their abilities can be cultivated and developed over time. They believe that they can become smarter or more talented through effort and learning. In short, Dweck’s work, too, suggests that becoming really good at something is the result of pushing oneself and learning from one’s mistakes.

In one of Dweck’s classic experiments, kids took a nonverbal IQ test. Half the kids were initially praised for their performance and their intelligence. The other half were praised for their effort. Although the kids who were praised for their success (their apparent genius) surely felt good about this glowing feedback, it led to serious problems down the road.

When asked what they’d like to work on next, the kids who’d been praised for their ability chose to do a task that they thought would make them look smart over a task they believed would give them a chance to learn something new. These kids who had been praised for being intelligent also gave up on another task when it became difficult. Worse yet, kids who were told they were smart lied about their performance when they had a chance to tell other people how they had done.

In contrast, kids who had been praised for their effort rather than their ability chose a future task that would allow them to learn rather than look good. They also persisted on a future task when it got difficult. In fact, they outperformed the kids who had received praise for their intelligence when both groups worked on a routine task that followed a very difficult task.

Dweck urges parents, coaches, and teachers to reward children of all ages for their efforts rather than their performances. Adults should also encourage kids to adopt an incremental orientation rather than an entity orientation toward learning and performance. Ironically, then, if you want your children to perform well and succeed, you should get them to focus not on being smart or talented but on working hard, trying their best, and sticking to difficult tasks in the face of failure.

For Further Reading

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2017). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52.

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