Child-Centered Parenting Promotes Praise-Seeking Rather Than Self-Cultivation

kid pointing to self

American parents bestow a lot of praise on their children.   We do so out of the mistaken belief

that self-esteem is a prerequisite for success in any given activity.  The theme song for Arthur the Aardvark states this quite succinctly: “Believe in yourself, cuz that’s the place to start!”   Parents and educators have taken this message to heart. If success starts with believing in ourselves, then it is necessary to praise children’s actions.  Parents tell their children that their drawing is “wonderful” and “amazing” when they are really thinking that the drawing could use a bit more color.  Telling children how special and smart they are will make them feel good about themselves,  while a gentle critique of their projects could crush them.  Abundant praise will give them “self-esteem”.   Self-esteem makes children believe in themselves; believing that one can do something is a pre-requisite for trying hard and succeeding.

The problem with this view is that the relationship between success and self-esteem is almost exactly the opposite of the ideas expressed in this message.   We don’t first gain self-esteem and then put our beliefs in ourselves into action; instead, we attain success in our actions and, in light of our success, we feel a sense of self-esteem or confidence.   Our belief that we are able to perform a task – and to perform it well – comes from the success that we are able to achieve at a task.

A few moments reflection reveals why this must be the case.  Imagine that you know nothing about how to fly an airplane.  Let’s suppose that I asked you to fly an important person to the White House.  You might say, “I can’t do that.  I don’t know how.”   Now imagine further that I said, “Come on!  Believe in yourself!”  A person cannot simply believe his way into doing something that he doesn’t know how to do.  He needs to be shown how to do it.

This leads to a second point: We can’t build self-esteem on our own because we learn to be successful at novel activities by ourselves.  Children need sensitive, nurturing and challenging adults to show them how to be successful, how to do the task right, how to manage their emotions when they fail, and how to continue to work hard to improve bit by bit.  This also requires that we give children corrective feedback when we teach them how to do something.  Children are resilient.  A child’s self-esteem will not be damaged when we correct their actions.  A child who feels supported and assisted en route to mastering a difficult skill will not only come to feel empowered and confident, she will also learn that the adults in her life are helpful rather than harmful.

Promoting Life-Long Self-Cultivation.  Our penchant for indiscriminant praise has deeply unwanted consequences for children and adults alike.  Psychologist Carol Dweck shows that praising children’s abilities and achievements tends to undermine rather than strengthen a child’s motivation to learn.   It does this by affecting how people think about the meaning of success and failure in their lives.

When we praise a child for his ability or achievement (e.g., “Good job, Todd!”; “What a smart girl, Liz!”), we teach children that their self-esteem depends on their ability on particular tasks:  “Success at a task means that I have high ability, which makes me feel good about myself; failure means I have low ability, and I feel bad.”  Dweck shows the importance of focusing not on ability, but instead how effort and perseverance produce gradual learning over time.  Instead of praising children for being able to achieve a particular outcome (getting a hit in this game), it is more important to focus on working hard and slowly cultivating new skills over time.   Praising ability and task success undermines motivation because it tells children that in order to feel good about themselves, they must have high ability.  Helping children focus on the slow gradual development of new skills promotes motivation by linking the child’s self-concept to successive steps to mastery of a skill.

People differ in how they think about success and failure.  Some people hold what Dweck calls a fixed mindset; others draw on a growth mindset.    A person who has a fixed mindset believes that his or her intelligence and abilities are fixed and unchangeable: a person is born with only a certain amount of ability, and there is not much one can do to change it.   A person who holds a growth mindset thinks just the opposite.   Our intelligence and abilities are not fixed; they are changeable through perseverance and hard work.   The fixed mindset develops when adults praise children for their ability or for their success in particular tasks.   Parents perpetuate a growth mindset when they focus more on the importance of gradual learning over time, rather than showing high or low ability.   These differences deeply affect how people learn.  Here’s how:

Imagine that Bob is playing baseball at school.  Imagine that he has a fixed mindset and believes that he has only so much baseball ability.  If he does well in the game, he is praised. If he does poorly, he feels badly about his low level of ability.   If Bob feels that his ability is unchangeable, he is unlikely to devote the time and effort to improving his game.  Believing “I am bad at baseball”, he will either avoid playing altogether, or only play under less challenging circumstances where he knows he can perform well.   As a result, Bob never improves his baseball skill.

Miranda, however, does not believe that her abilities are fixed.  She understands that if she works hard and perseveres, she cannot help but to improve.   Imagine that Miranda gets a hit.  Rather than showing effusive praise, her coach says, “Nice swing.  Now, if you hold the bat like this, and keep your eye on the ball, you’ll be able to hit it farther.”  In this situation, Miranda is being taught that while her success is good, it is not the most important thing.  What is more important is to find ways to improve one’s skill through perseverance.   The same logic applies if Miranda were to strike out each time at bat.  If she believed that her failure was the result of having poor ability, she might feel shame.   However, if she believes that success comes from perseverance, she will link her failure to not yet having learned the skill.   This type of thinking develops when adults focus on the importance of perseverance rather than ability.  Her coach might say “You did well keeping your eye on the ball.  I’ve noticed you are holding the bat way down here and swinging too early.  Practice like this and let’s see what happens.”

Bob and Miranda have different understanding of what it means to fail.  Drawing on a fixed mindset, Bob thinks that failure means he lacks ability, and he does not bother to try to change.   Based on her growth mindset, Miranda interprets failure as an indication that she needs more work in order to master her skill.   Bob is focused on the praise and good feelings that come from showing others that he has some ability.  As a result, Bob learns to avoid challenging tasks — he might fail.  Miranda is focused on what she has to do to learn a new skill, or to continue to improve.  Miranda learns to embrace challenging tasks – she is sure to learn, and her confidence comes from her willingness to work hard.