Look At You! Praise Process, Not Prowess

February 4, 2017


"Look what I can do!" Do your kids ever shout these words to you? "Heeeeeey!!! lookit this!" 


I remember endless summer evenings, watching my younger sister ride her bike in a monotonous path, back and forth in front of our front steps, doing "tricks". Usually the tricks consisted of: one hand in the air, one hand on the handlebars OR only one foot on the pedal, the other extended out to the side in a feeble balance move. This was not exactly thrilling to watch, but my little sister clearly felt like Evel Kneivel and we would all whoop and clap and tell her how great and amazing she was (even as I was internally rolling my eyes).


What I didn't know, but my parents did, is that being a supportive audience for my sister was helping to build her confidence, her self-esteem, and her general belief in herself. What my parents didn't know (because this information was not yet available), is that they should have been praising my sister's process instead of her prowess. My younger sister turned out just fine-- actually, better than fine. She's pretty much the best one out of all of us four kids. But her experience as a child is not unlike most of ours, before research about mindset became available to the general public.


If you are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck and mindset researchers like her, you probably have heard about the importance of character skills and grit for success in learning and life. Dweck's research indicates that children with a growth mindset, a belief that their intelligence is flexible and grow-able, have more grit and perseverance than kids with a fixed mindset, a belief that their abilities are set and finite. The simplest example of this is the math example. Fixed Mindset: I'm not good at math; Growth Mindset: Math is challenging for me, but I know I can keep improving with help and a plan.


It is important to note that a growth mindset and a fixed mindset can co-exist. We, or our children, might have a growth mindset about swimming, but a fixed mindset about writing. In developing the growth mindset, it is important to not only praise process (you worked hard!), but strategy as well (you tried a different way of doing that this time!), with an emphasis on reflection and trying again with a different strategy, if necessary, not just trying harder. Reacting to failure for example: If your child is working on writing his or her name and misses letters, mirror writes (backwards-- not uncommon), or becomes frustrated trying to remember. You can: 1.reassure that it is learn-able, 2.ask what information is missing (use a letter chart for reference, or model the name-writing yourself), 3. try again with a new strategy. Failure should be embraced as part of the learning process, not dismissed as a, well, failure.


Praising process only 100% of the time is not the goal. We can still tell our children that they are our perfect, magical people. But praising process most of the time, especially around learning, provides our kids with a well of understanding that learning is process and failure is to be expected. Here are some of the phrases that we like to use at preschool in service of the development of growth mindset:


1. Look at what you did!

2. Tell me more about that!

3. Tell me how you did that!

4. How do you feel about that?

5. What else do we/you need for this work?

6. Should we try again?

7. Wow! You kept practicing and now you are better at that!


Just like all things parenting-related, when you model a growth mindset yourself, your children will pick up on it! So think: how do you react to your own failures? What are your fixed mindsets (adults often critique their own drawing skills in front of their children: "I'm not very good at drawing.")? Try applying some these growth mindset approaches in your own life and work. Remember: most of our parents didn't know to praise process and effort! But we get a chance to refine our strategy as parents and try again with our kids. Hey! That's growth mindset, too.

Lookit you!

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