How Our Compliments May Actually Hurt Our Children

How Our Compliments May Actually Hurt Our Children

Did you know that not all praise is the same and some can actually be detrimental to our children?

A few weeks ago, as I was making my way through my most current read entitled The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey, I came across an interesting study that got me thinking about the power my words have on the growth and development of my children.

In the study described, Stanford University Professor of Psychology, Carol Dweck, who is also one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, carried out a series of experiments to test the effects of praise on a group of several hundred adolescent students.

During the first part of the experiment, Dweck and her team gave the students a fairly easy test with ten questions. Once they finished the test, half of the students were complimented with “Wow, you got [say] eight right. You must be smart at this.” While the other half heard “Wow, you got [say] eight right. You must have worked really hard.” Although the students in the experiment had similar achievements on the test before they were praised,  dramatic behavioral differences were noted after the praise was received. In the words of Lahey,

“The half who received praise for their smarts adopted a fixed mindset [belief that intelligence is innate]. When given a choice between tasks, they rejected the more challenging option in favor of the one they could more easily master, thereby keeping their “smart” and “talented” label intact.”

As the experiments continued, the research team gave the students a much harder test intended to cause some failure and feelings of frustration. During this test, Dweck noticed that the kids who were praised for their smarts earlier tended to give up more easily, while the kids who were praised for their efforts tried harder. In fact, the latter even said the “the hard problems were more fun.”

The adolescents who were praised for their efforts developed a growth mindset [belief that intelligence can be developed]. While they were having fun with the difficult questions, the fixed mindset group was giving up. As the experiments continued, the fixed-mindset group continued to do poorly even after the level of difficulty of the questions was lowered. They also had a hard time facing defeat and had worse results on the easy questions than they had on the first test.

At the end of the experiment, Dweck asked all the adolescents to write down some of their thoughts about the test for future students and to include their scores.

“Forty percent of the kids who were praised for smarts lied about their scores. As Dweck wrote in her book Mindset,’we took ordinary children and made them into liars, by simply telling them they were smart.’ ”

Wow! How powerful our words can be to affect the mindset of our children!

In order to appreciate the importance of the experiments above, we need to understand the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. People with a fixed mindset see intelligence as an innate quality that cannot be changed. In other words, they believe people are born with certain abilities and if they are not part of that group, they feel there is nothing they can do to change that. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe abilities can be developed if they put in the appropriate amount of effort.

To help clarify the difference between fixed and growth mindsets and to understand the implications of each, check out this neat infographic I found:

Fixed mindset vs. growth mindset infographic


Are you curious to know what kind of mindset you have? Take this test to find out.

In her book, Lahey goes on to say that when we tell our children “you are smart,” we are actually making a judgement statement and, regardless of how positive and loving it sounds, it still has a negative impact on their performance. In other words, telling them they are smart labels them as people and does not take into account the product of their efforts. This type of praise might also be enough to discourage them from trying new things that might have a negative effect on their “smart” label for fear that we will withdraw our approval. If instead we tell our children we are proud of them for their efforts, we are reinforcing the behavior, not making a judgement call.

As babies, we are always trying new things. We take a few steps, fall, and then get up and try again. Unfortunately, this resilience and openness to new experiences can be dramatically affected by the way we learn to view ourselves and our abilities as we grow. Now that we are parents, our words and interactions with our children, can have a major impact on how they see themselves and the kind of mindset they will develop.

So how can we use praise to build up our children? Here are some helpful tips I got from Lahey’s book:

  1. Praise for effort, not inherent qualities. Instead of “great job on that test! You are so smart!” try “Great job on that test! What did you do this time in your preparation that worked so well?” Instead of “I love your drawing! you have a real talent in art!” try “I’m proud of you for working so hard on the shading and perspective.” Kids who believe that intelligence grows with effort and diligence will be less distraught about failures, more likely to stick with tasks through those failures, and may even have more fun as they do so.”
  2. Adopt a growth mindset in your own life, even when it makes you uncomfortable. When your kids see you stretch yourself, even if you fail in the process, they will be more likely to stretch themselves. Better yet, let them see you continue to stretch yourself after you fail, so they will understand that failing at a task does not mean that the person is a failure. You are your child’s first and greatest role model, so show him that you are dedicated to the idea that success is tied to effort, not innate talent. Find the thing you believe you cannot do, and give it a shot. failure and rejection are a part of the learning process, particularly when we butt up against our comfort zones, but it’s amazing what can happen once we break through that zone and glimpse the possibilities beyond.
  3. Don’t reinforce maladaptive reactions to failure. We all react differently to failure, but some of those reactions are healthier than others and have the potential to teach us more. Denial, for example, tends to exacerbate and prolong failure. Be honest with your children. If your child has failed at something because she did not work hard enough, say so. Teach your child to see the realities of her shortcomings and failure and react accordingly. When we tell children how talented and gifted they are at a particular skill when all evidence points to the contrary, they know, and their faith in us is subsequently weakened.
  4. Make sure your child knows his failures do not lessen your love or opinion of him. Your love and emotional connection buffer and soften the pain and embarrassment children may feel from failure. Further, knowing that you will be there to support, rather than to judge or offer false praise, offers kids a secure and safe haven from the anxiety they experience in their lives.
  5. Let your children feel disappointed by failure. Sit with the emotions and don’t try to jump and resolve the situation. After all, these are his failures, not yours, and it is unfair and counterproductive to try to make it all better for him. What you are teaching him through your patient silence and inaction on his behalf is that he has the inner strength to move on from failure.
  6. Do not offer to rescue your child from the consequences of his mistake. Your offer to rescue implies that you don’t believe he has the ability to find a solution himself. Help him problem-solve and find lessons in the failure rather than viewing it as a devastating blow to his self-image and confidence. Your goal should be to help him regain a sense of control over the experience of failing. The real learning happens when kids begin to understand how to pick through the wreckage, find the pieces that still work for them, and devise a strategy for future success.

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (pp 68-70)


The Gift of Failure Amazon link

Click here to read a full description and reviews for this book on Amazon


Do I think I should stop praising my children? No, and I truly hope that is NOT the message your are taking home from this post. What I have described above is just one study on this topic and I am sure there is much more to learn. I am sharing this information with you because it really made me put into perspective how big of an impact my words can have on my children and how I can be more effective in using them for good.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to learn more you can start by checking out the resources I have listed for you below.

Additional Resources:


“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Prov 25:11 ESV


I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. I look forward to reading your comments below.

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