How to Praise?

How often do you say, “Good Job!” Every time your child slides down the slide? Each time he does something new? Or whenever he does something you wanted him to? Our preschool director, Fern Eisenberg at Beth Sholom Family Preschool, frequently reminds us not to say, “Good Job!” Until I met her, I had no idea how ingrained this phrase “good job” was in my head. Multiple times a day, I’d find myself eating my words and wondering how *to* praise my child.

Childs School ProjectPraising effort not intelligence is the cornerstone of Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. As described in this NY Times article, Praise Children for Effort, Not Intelligence, Study Says, the theory is that the mindset of hard work is essential to one’s future, and that making mistakes helps the brain to grow neurons.

The risk of praising output instead of effort? A child who didn’t work hard expects that all future results will come easily and doesn’t put out as much effort. The brain then doesn’t grow as much because the child doesn’t realize he has to work. All children, regardless of intellect, can grow their brains by working hard, and adult success requires some tolerance for mistakes. In other words, as Thomas Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” No doubt, Edison was extraordinarily brilliant, yet he stressed the need for work and errors.

But how do we put productive praises into place? How do we praise our children so that they know we are proud of them without harming their work ethic? Fern recommends that you talk about the effort, for instance, “You worked hard to make that drawing,” instead of “What a beautiful drawing!” It’s also fun to comment on the choices the child made to start a discussion, such as “I love the blues and greens. So interesting how you chose your colors! What made you pick those colors?”

I decided to experiment recently, when my son picked up a much harder book than I thought he could read, and plowed through his first few pages of dense text. Instead of commenting on how good or smart he was, I instead told him about how hard he worked. He was so excited that he asked me to write it down, which gave me the idea to start leaving him notes. Here’s my first one:


Dear Ben,

I am SO proud of you for working hard to improve your reading. You are working hard to read small print, sound out hard words, and to pause to ask questions so that you remember what you read. You now understand and comprehend what you read. Keep up the hard work!

Love, Mommy


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