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To encourage + motivate, try these 3 better ways to praise kids

When praise labels a child (e.g., “I am smart”), it’s easy to focus on looking good instead of learning.

To encourage + motivate, try these 3 better ways to praise kids

You’re so smart!”

“You’re so creative!”


“You’re so... [insert convenient, but possibly damaging description here]!”

The other day during a frantic scramble to get my 1-year-old to music class, I watched her perform her latest trick—slipping into her little gym shoes and tightening the Velcro straps all by herself. She then stared at me as I filled the stroller with diapers and other random items until I rattled off something like, “Good job, Jasmin. You’re so smart.” She flashed all eight of her teeth at me. As I started to put my own shoes on, Jasmin proceeded to rip hers off. “Jas, put your shoes back on; we need to go!” I said. She proficiently slid them back on and looked up again. “OK, let’s go!” I pleaded, to which she replied “Ehhhhhhhh!” (Translation: “That’s not what I want!”)

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Because I was in no mood for this debate, I cheered, “Good job, my little smarty pants!” For good measure, I clapped. She clapped, too. Great, I thought, now we can go. But instead, she took her shoes off again. We ended up missing half the class. Worse yet, I had created a praise junkie. Even at this young age, my daughter craved to be rewarded for her feat. As an emotional intelligence teacher, I should have known better.

Our child performs; we praise—often without thought. What’s the harm, right? After all, it’s just a quick verbal pat on the back. But here’s the truth: Praise often motivates children... to receive more praise. And when praise labels a child (e.g., “I am smart”), it’s easy to focus on looking good instead of learning. In fact, this focus on looking good can become so intense that it encumbers kids from taking simple chances, like raising their hands in class. In short, telling kids they are “smart” can make them act the opposite.

These three research-based strategies show us how to praise our kids to build an effective motivational framework:

1. Praise the process, not the person

In groundbreaking studies, researcher Carol Dweck found that the way we praise kids can affect their mindset and, in turn, their propensity to take on challenges, persevere and succeed academically. Dweck identified two particular mindsets: fixed versus growth.

Kids with fixed mindsets believe things such as intelligence, character and creative ability are innate and immutable. In other words, no matter how much they study or how much effort they exert, they’re pretty much stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt. Because children with fixed mindsets believe their potential is capped, they avoid challenges that test their abilities.

On the other hand, kids with a growth mindset believe the brain is a muscle that can grow, and abilities are assets to be nurtured through hard work. Kids with growth mindsets believe that what they are born with are raw materials—a launching point. As a result, they thrive on challenges.

Dweck and colleagues demonstrated the difference between these mindsets during one experiment in which 4-year-olds were asked to work on jigsaw puzzles. They were given a choice to either work on an easy puzzle they had already completed or try a more challenging one. Those with fixed mindsets chose to redo the easier puzzles, thus affirming their existing abilities. Those with growth mindsets thought the choice was odd to begin with—why would someone do the same puzzle again instead of learning something new? The growth-mindset children opted to stretch themselves by tackling the more challenging puzzles. In sum, growth mindset children relate success to the act of becoming smarter, rather than demonstrating they are already smart.

Want to cultivate a growth mindset in your child?

Try this:

Praise the strategy (e.g., “You found a really good way to do it.”)

Praise with specificity (e.g., “You seem to really understand fractions.”)

Praise effort (e.g., “I can tell you’ve been practicing.”)

2. Keep it real: Don’t say, “Good job!” when it’s not

Another pioneer in the field, psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, found in a series of experiments that only kids under the age of seven accept praise at face value; older children are just as suspicious of praise as adults. In fact, by the age of 12, children scrutinize words of praise for truth and hidden agendas. After all, they usually know whether they actually did a good job.

Meyer’s studies found children believed that receiving praise from a teacher was not a sign of doing well—rather, it was a sign the teacher thought they lacked ability and needed extra encouragement. These kids had detected a pattern: Kids who are falling behind are drowned in praise. Even more interesting, Meyer shows that teens discounted praise to such extent that they felt a teacher’s criticism was a better indicator of doing well.

Try this:

Be sincere. One of the biggest mistakes we can make as parents and teachers is assuming that kids aren’t sophisticated enough to sense the intentions behind our praise. You might think that you’re encouraging a child by praising poor performance, but as it turns out, kids may actually perceive inauthentic praise as a sign of failure. Offer authentic praise for real achievements.

3. Stop praising altogether (Seriously? Yes, indeed.)

An impressive body of studies shows praise can be altogether demotivating. For example, in seminal research conducted by Mary Budd Rowe, students elementary through college age who were praised lavishly by teachers began to answer questions with a more tentative tone (“Um, the answer is seven?”). And when the teacher disagreed, the students would retreat from their original idea or answer.

In another eye-opening study by researcher Joan Grusec, 8-to-9-year-olds, frequently praised for generosity, started to act less generous on an everyday basis relative to other children. In fact, each time the children heard “I’m so proud of you for helping,” or “Great sharing!” they became a little less interested in helping or sharing.

Here’s the thing: Kids develop an addiction to praise. They require higher and higher doses of it to be satiated. And as soon as parents and teachers remove the dangling carrot, children can lose interest in their activity. Lilian Katz, a leading authority on childhood education, explains, “Once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.” In short, the point of a child’s activity (painting, climbing, tying their shoes, etc.) becomes only to win that carrot, the “Good job!” from an adult.

So if we’re going to cut back on praising, what should we do instead?

Try this:

Instead of praising, try to observe and comment. Making a simple, evaluation-free statement like “You put your shoes on by yourself!” or, “You did it!” acknowledges effort and encourages children to take pride in their accomplishments. If your child draws a picture, provide feedback—not judgment—on what you observe: “Those clouds are big!” or, “You sure used a lot of blue today!”

Like all of us, I want my kids to feel encouraged and motivated. I want to acknowledge their triumphs because I’m genuinely proud of them. I also know that I’m a “Good job!” junkie, and changing habits takes a little effort. My plan? Next time I see my 1-year-old tackle her latest challenge, I plan on taking a deep breath and really connecting with her by praising her process, keeping it real and making a simple observation about what she’s accomplished. I hope I still get that toothy smile I love so much!

This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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I never wanted to be a mom. It wasn't something I ever thought would happen until I fell madly in love with my husband—who knew very well he wanted children. While he was a natural at entertaining our nephews or our friends' kids, I would awkwardly try to interact with them, not really knowing what to say or do.

Our first pregnancy was a surprise, a much-wanted one but also a unicorn, "first try" kind of pregnancy. As my belly grew bigger, so did my insecurities. How do you even mom when you never saw motherhood in your future? I focused all my uncertainties on coming up with a plan for the delivery of my baby—which proved to be a terrible idea when my dreamed-of unmedicated vaginal birth turned into an emergency C-section. I couldn't even start motherhood the way I wanted, I thought. And that feeling happened again when I couldn't breastfeed and instead had to pump and bottle-feed. And once more, when all the stress from things not going my way turned into debilitating postpartum anxiety that left me not really enjoying my brand new baby.

As my baby grew, slowly so did my confidence that I could do this. When he would tumble to the ground while learning how to walk and only my hugs could calm him, I felt invincible. But on the nights he wouldn't sleep—whether because he was going through a regression, a leap, a teeth eruption or just a full moon—I would break down in tears to my husband telling him that he was a better parent than me.

Then I found out I was pregnant again, and that this time it was twins. I panicked. I really cannot do two babies at the same time. I kept repeating that to myself (and to my poor husband) at every single appointment we had because I was just terrified. He, of course, thought I could absolutely do it, and he got me through a very hard pregnancy.

When the twins were born at full term and just as big as singleton babies, I still felt inadequate, despite the monumental effort I had made to grow these healthy babies and go through a repeat C-section to make sure they were both okay. I still felt my skin crawl when they cried and thought, What if I can't calm them down? I still turned to my husband for diaper changes because I wasn't a good enough mom for twins.

My husband reminded me (and still does) that I am exactly what my babies need. That I am enough. A phrase that has now become my mantra, both in motherhood and beyond, because as my husband likes to say, I'm the queen of selling myself short on everything.

So when my babies start crying, I tell myself that I am enough to calm them down.

When my toddler has a tantrum, I remind myself that I am enough to get through to him.

When I go out with the three kids by myself and start sweating about everything that could go wrong (poop explosions times three), I remind myself that I am enough to handle it all, even with a little humor.


And then one day I found this bracelet. Initially, I thought how cheesy it'd be to wear a reminder like this on my wrist, but I bought it anyway because something about it was calling my name. I'm so glad I did because since day one I haven't stopped wearing it.

Every time I look down, there it is, shining back at me. I am enough.

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Life

Becoming a mother has been life-changing. It's been hard, tiring, gratifying, beautiful, challenging, scary and a thousand other things that only a parent would ever understand.

It is these life-changing experiences that have inspired me to draw my everyday life as a stay at home mom. Whether it's the mundane tasks like doing laundry or the exciting moments of James', my baby boy's, first steps, I want to put it down on paper so that I can better cherish these fleeting moments that are often overlooked.

Being a stay-at-home-mom can be incredibly lonely. I like to think that by drawing life's simple moments, I can connect with other mothers and help them feel less alone. By doing this, I feel less alone, too. It's a win-win situation and I have been able to connect with many lovely parents and fellow parent-illustrators through my Instagram account.

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