Mary, 9, and Jameson, 10, were given a series of IQ puzzles and asked to work on them silently. At the end, the researcher gave each child a score. The research assistant praised Mary for being smart, while Jameson was praised for working hard.

After reviewing Mary’s answers, the research assistant lauded her: “Wow, you did really well at these problems. You got 8 — that’s a great score. You must be really smart at these problems.”

If Dweck’s theory holds, Mary will want to continue to look smart, and when given the choice, will opt for a test that shows it — not something more challenging where they she could learn more.

In the next phase, when Mary was asked by the research assistant what kind of problems she would like to work on next, “problems that are pretty easy so you’ll do well, problems that you’re pretty good at so you can show that you’re smart, or problems that you’ll learn a lot from even if you don’t look so smart,” Mary chose problems to show that she’s smart.

“Problems that I’m pretty good at — so I can show I’m smart,” Mary told the researcher. “I am smart.”

Consider the difference with Jameson, who was praised for how hard he’d worked — not for being smart.

“Well, you did really well on these problems. You got 8 — that’s a really high score! You must have worked really hard on these problems,” the researcher said. Jameson agreed.

Dweck’s research suggests that Jameson — armed with praise for his hard work — will want to challenge himself — even though he got some problems wrong.

Following course, Jameson opted for “problems I’ll learn a lot from even if I don’t look so smart.”

“After they’re praised for their effort, they enjoy being challenged,” Dweck explained. “What we value here is the practice, the effort, the trying of many strategies, and then they can feel satisfied as long as they’ve been engaged in that way. But if you say we value how smart you are, how enjoyable can it be if you’re not shining?”


This snippet is from the growing body of research that says praise doesn’t work.  In fact, not only doesn’t it work it has the exact opposite effect we desire!


This is why it is important to learn the difference between Praise and Encouragement.

Praise always carries an external judgement or label.  Like, “good, best, perfect.”  Praise also focuses on how other people feel or perceive the child.  Like, “I’m proud of you.” This encourages competition and comparison – the idea that your worth is measured based on how you rate along side other people.


Encouragement, on the other hand, is focusing on the internal motivation in the child and encouraging them to believe in themselves.  Encouraging kids to see their own, inherent (non-comparison-based) value creates kids that are independent, self-sufficient, and willing to try new things.  It also creates an environment of acceptance.  Without the constant need to compete, each person’s unique contribution is valued.


Let’s look at some examples (I highlighted the evaluative/judgmental words and the external words.);


Praise Interpretation Encouragement Interpretation
You are so smart! You are valuable because you are smarter than others.  Ergo, your worth decreases around those smarter than you. You studied really hard. You are capable of effort at a task.
What a pretty flower! You are valuable because you draw better than others. Ergo, your worth decreases if you draw something ugly. Wow, this flower has red, purple, and green! You are valuable because you can do things your own unique way.
I am so proud of you. You are valuable because you make me proud. Ergo, your worth decreases when you disappoint me. You must be so proud of yourself. You are worthy of value and can be happy with your accomplishments..
You are the best baseball player. You are valuable because you can play baseball better than others. Ergo, your worth decreases when someone who plays better is around. You are a valuable part of that baseball team. You are a valuable and unique part of the group.
Good job! You are valuable because I approve of you. Ergo, your worth decreases when I disapprove of you. You did it! You followed through and accomplished something you set out to do.
Good job! You are valuable because I approve of you. Ergo, your worth decreases when I disapprove of you. (descriptive) You put away all the toys! You are valuable because you can accomplish things you set your mind to.
You were so good at Grandmas. You are valuable because you behaved in a way I approve of. Ergo, if you behave in a way I don’t like then your value will decrease. You were very helpful with Grandma today. You contribute to your family in meaningful ways.


The outcomes of Praise are:

  • Competition
  • Comparison
  • Rivalry
  • Being labeled
  • Feeling judged
  • Selfishness
  • Fear of failure
  • Quitting to avoid failure
  • Dependence on others for self-esteem
The outcomes of Encouragement are:

  • Cooperation
  • Contribution
  • Altruism
  • Acceptance (of self and others)
  • Independence
  • Interdependence
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Try again attitude
  • Hard worker (values effort)
  • Embraces imperfections
  • Self-esteem is internal

Three ways to break the praise cycle

  1. Say nothing.  Always feeling a good deed must be acknowledged assumes that the good deed was an aberration of normal behavior. Sometimes not even mentioning it can enforce that goodness is innate.
  2. Describe.  This is particularly helpful when your kids do something they are proud of (your child comes to you beaming with a new picture he drew).  They are probably looking for your approval (since that is what society trains them to need) but you can switch their focus to their unique effort by describing what you see.  For example;
    1. Instead of “Good job cleaning up your room.” Say, “You put all the legos in the lego bin and all the dolls on the shelf.”
    2. Instead of “You look pretty today.” Say, “You brushed your own hair and put on your headband.”
  3. Ask Questions/Open-ended Comments. Along with saying nothing, saying LESS is a skill parents could make more use of.  Here are some examples;
    1. When your child says, “Look mom I got an A on my test!” say, “you did?!”
    2. When your child brings you a pretty picture focus on their effort, “how did you pick these colors? What was the hardest part of drawing this house?”
    3. Meet “I won the race” with “how did that make you feel?”
  4. BONUS for Siblings – Praising your children when you have more than one can backfire even further. There is a tendency amongst siblings to take the praise of one child as a silent indictment of the other.  So “you are so smart” to child A becomes “I must not be smart” in child B’s mind. Here are a few tips for encouraging a child while strengthening the sibling bonds (works with friends too);
    1. Never compare. Even tacit comparison (after they clean their room saying “Marcy cleaned all the shelves,” implying Tammy did less). Just describe what you see: “I see a clean room!” Marcy and Tammy know who did the most work but they also know it isn’t a competition in Dad’s eyes.
    2. Encourage cooperation. Use encouragement (not praise) when siblings are being helpful and loving. If they work together to share a toy, for example, instead of saying, “good sharing!” say “I see you two are working as a team!”

What are some ways you commonly praise your kids?

Can you turn those into encouragements?

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