Praising Effort — Not Talent — Helps Kids Succeed

Brett Pelham
4 min readApr 10, 2020
Image by, courtesy of Pexels

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…

Brett Pelham

Brett is a social psychologist at Montgomery College, MD. Brett studies health, gender, culture, religion, identity, and stereotypes.