Your mini spent days cramming for a huge algebra test and now she comes home with a big grin on her face and an "A." You couldn't be prouder of her and, of course, you should let her know how great she is. But before you congratulate her on her top score, you may want to heed the advice of Rachel Lugo, a licensed professional counselor at The Watson Institute in Pittsburgh.
Compliment traits and not states, Lugo says. “It’s natural for kids to see outcomes, without connecting the dots to the processes that brought them about.” So, instead of saying, “You aced that test—you’re so smart!” Lugo advises saying something like, “I’m proud of you for working hard!”
This simple shift is a great way to teach your child the importance of hard work and persistence. And perhaps even more importantly, it will also help her understand that while she can’t always control her circumstances, she can control her actions.
A Columbia University study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology echoes this theory. In the study, researchers found that children who were praised for their intelligence (as opposed to their effort) became overly focused on the result. This, in turn, caused them to attribute their failure on a test due to a lack of ability—something they believed that they could not change. These children then performed poorly in subsequent tasks. Meanwhile, children who were praised for effort, attributed their failure to lack of trying (which they believed they could change), and they performed well in future activities. They also worked harder and enjoyed new challenges more than the "intelligent" group.
Parenting expert and psychologist Reena B. Patel agrees. Praising effort over outcome “helps to avoid deflating a child's self-esteem and teaches kids to focus on the process—something they can adjust.”