Of course, parents want to tell their kids how great they are—after all, they are smart, intelligent, and athletic! But unfortunately, research shows that calling your kids gifted and talented isn’t going to cut it. Certain types of praise can inadvertently stunt a child’s performance.
Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine and host of the Huberman Lab, evaluates how performance and grit are inextricably linked to the praise people receive and give themselves, as well as whether or not they can learn and adopt a growth mindset.
“It turns out that the kind of praise or feedback that we receive that attaches our identity to performance can actually undermine our performance,” he says in the podcast episode on how to enhance performance.
From a young age, we often accept what we are good and bad at, Huberman says. For example, I told myself (and still do) that I am awful at drawing—I could never draw a proportional figure in art class. I also told myself (and don’t anymore) that I was good at piano, learning covers to pop hits in my free time.
“We tend to decide if we are good or bad at things, and we tend to integrate those with our identity somewhat or a lot, depending on whether or not we’re a professional or amateur or how much we engage in an activity,” Huberman says.
As it turns out, being told we are talented or intelligent in a particular regard limits our potential. As cheesy as it sounds, focusing on and praising the journey over the destination is the sweet spot to optimize our performance. As renowned author Glennon Doyle’s podcast title reads, we can do hard things.
How to praise your child the ‘right’ way
Huberman cites Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential, whose 1998 research set the stage for how effort-based praise over intelligence-based praise is vital to improving performance.
Children who were told they were great or smart after completing a task tended to only engage in easier activities that elevated their sense of achievement.
“They are likely to go with the least amount of challenge so that they can continue to receive that praise or feedback,” Huberman says.
Children who were praised for their effort and the process of working hard on a problem were more likely to seek out more challenging tasks. And more, those praised for their effort sought out more challenges in general, aiming to capitalize on and improve upon their effort. Contrary to the intention behind it, telling someone they are a great athlete may cause them to play conservatively. After all, being good is their identity, so they fear what happens when they lose.
“If you’re a parent or teacher, you have to be very careful about giving feedback to a child that is attached to their identity around an endeavor, especially if they’re performing well at that endeavor,” Huberman says.
Praise with verbs
Huberman explains it in simple terms: no more nouns.
“If you attach effort verbs to why you got good at something, as well as why you are not good at something, then there’s only room for improvement,” he says in the episode.
Teach a growth mindset
Focusing on effort points to adopting a growth mindset—the notion that we can consistently find new ways to optimize performance and tackle challenges. Our identities are not fixed, Huberman says.
“Growth mindset is really a way of connecting motivation to cognition,” Huberman says, adding that it helps people bounce back from setbacks and turn frustration into action.
As simple as it is, outlining the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset is a great place to start for parents and teachers.
Encourage children to ask for help
When we don’t perform as well as we would have liked, it’s easy to spiral into negative emotions. One way to encourage a growth mindset is to encourage children to ask for help after a challenge.
“Seek help from others in understanding where you didn’t perform as well as you like,” Huberman says.
Further, consider asking for feedback when something goes right.
“Seek input from others as to what were the verbs that you think might’ve led to your heightened performance.”
Remind children that there’s a good type of stress
A 2013 study found that when people understood the stress is enhancing mindset, they perform better. A stress is enhancing mindset is knowing that the feelings of stress, like an elevated heart rate, are there to serve you rather than deplete you.
“How you think about stress impacts the stress response in profound ways,” Huberman says, adding that this mindset also lessens the duration of the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), helping to control the uncomfortable feelings of stress. “If people are taught about the performance enhancing aspects of stress, then those people will experience performance enhancement when they are confronted with stress.”
To form this mindset, students participated in a brief tutorial on the difference between the stress mindsets. It allowed them to see healthy doses of stress as part of the journey.
“We should always be striving to give others and ourselves praise that is correctly attached to genuine effort,” Huberman says. “At the end of our life, really the only thing that you really truly can control is where you place your attention and where you place your effort.”