I know some amazing parents. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of parents who are reading this are pretty amazing parents. There is, however, some disagreement, even among amazing parents, on how and whether to praise children.

Some parents praise everything their child does: “Talullah! You drank all your milk and ate all of your peas. You’re such a good girl. You’re so good at eating your dinner.” Other parents hold the belief that praising their child for behaviors that they should engage in anyway will create spoiled little monsters.

Both praising styles are on to something–each contains some truth. Proper praise motivates children, while the wrong kind of praise causes negative consequences and self-defeating behavior.  More pointedly: Praise is good, but the wrong kind of praise can be harmful. Research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist out of Stanford, helps shed some light on the praise problem.

The type of praise that a parent gives a child helps shape the child’s mindset concerning their abilities. Many people intuitively sense this, which is why children are praised so frequently. We want our children to be confident in their abilities. Many of us, however, fail to recognize that the type of praise we are directing at our children is creating what Dweck calls a fixed, rather than a growth mind-set about their abilities. Whether a child has a fixed or growth mind-set about their abilities and capabilities greatly influences the amount of effort they exert in tasks and the degree of motivation they experience to work through difficulties.

Children with a Fixed Mind-set 

Children with a fixed mind-set about their abilities tend to be concerned with others’ judgments. They worry whether people think they are smart or not-smart, good or not-good. Not surprisingly, these children tend to avoid situations in which they might make mistakes and reveal their deficiencies. When they do makes mistakes they tend to try and hide them rather than correct them.

These children often feel less capable or able when they have to exert effort. They believe that having to exert effort suggests that they may not possess the ability in question. They become afraid of effort because it seems to invalidate their innate abilities. Lastly, when faced with difficulties these children will tend to decrease their effort and look for alternative ways of succeeding (i.e. cheating and other such shortcuts).

Children with a Growth Mind-set

Children with a growth mind-set believe that effort is positive. They believe that their abilities and capabilities can grow with time and effort. They tend not to be afraid of being judged, which allows them to acknowledge and correct their mistakes and deficiencies rather than try to hide them. When these children encounter failure they increase their efforts and explore new strategies for overcoming the difficulty.

Praise the Process Not the Person

As noted above, the type of praise we give our children influences whether they have a fixed or growth mind-set.

When we praise the person of the child we tend to give them the sense that their abilities are fixed.  This kind of praise sounds like, “You are so smart,” “You are so generous,” “You’re so wonderful,” “Gosh, you’re great at baseball,” “Jeepers, you’re a great ballerina.” Children who receive lots of person praise often view their abilities and capabilities as fixed and static. They either have it or they do not. Person praise doesn’t increase confidence, motivation, or resilience, but rather saddles the child with the fixed mind-set (about their abilities) and all of the tendencies that accompany that way of thinking.

Process praise on the other hand invites kids to remain engaged, confident, and motivated because it highlights the potential for growth of the child’s abilities and capabilities. Process praise focuses on acknowledging the child’s effort, engagement, perseverance, and improvement. In this way the child learns that effort and difficulty signal opportunities to exercise their growth capacity. They do not avoid or fear effort, but rather embrace their mistakes and deficiencies because they believe they can cultivate their abilities.

Now, our children do not have unlimited growth potential among their ability domains and it would be unhelpful to teach them that they did. The old, “You can do anything and be anything you want to be” simply isn’t true. I am never going to be able to do physics like Einstein and it wouldn’t have done me any good growing up if my mother had told me I could. We do, however, tend to have ranges of ability on most of the traits for which we give and receive praise. Process praise increases the likelihood that a child will push themselves to work at the upper end of their ability range, while developing beliefs about ability in general that increase resilience in the face of mistakes or failures.

Examples of Process Praise

“You really worked hard on those math problems. You tried to solve it a few times and you tried different ways of solving it each time. That really worked.”

“You made such an effort to share your toys with your brother/sister. You saw that he/she would really enjoy the toy, and you let him/her play with it. You were thinking about what he/she would like. That’s great!”

“I like that you stepped up to the challenge of learning how to pass a soccer ball with the inside of your foot. It will take time to learn how to pass accurately–practicing each day in order to strengthen those muscles, but you are working hard and I can see your effort paying off already.”

If an activity comes easily to your child, you can acknowledge the ease with which they performed the activity and invite them to try something more challenging for the purpose of learning.  If on the other hand your child works hard but does not do well, you can acknowledge their hard work and effort and invite them to work together with you  in order to figure out what they did not understand. Process praise helps foster and encourage this attitude of curiosity and exploration.

I know some amazing parents, or rather I should say, parents who work really hard at affirming their children. They pour forth time and energy to be aware of their child’s needs and closely observe their child’s behavior. These parents try different strategies to engage their children, recognizing that each child is unique. They do a really great job.

So, if you are a parent praise your child! Shower them with praise. Just make sure that it is process praise.

Do you have any experience with process vs. person praise? Share your stories with us. We would love to hear from you.

This article originally appeared on PsychedCatholic and is republished with permission. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.