Foster Confidence, Not Fear: How to Talk to Your Child

Although I have no children, I get a sense that modern parenting seems much like a minefield.  As if one wrong move could spell disaster.  This results in parents having to juke and jive from one potentially explosive issue to the next.

A perfect example of this is the immunization debate that some unqualified celebrities created.  Although wholly bogus, the sheer thought of inflicting irreparable damage to your child through vaccination was enough to convince some to opt out of one the greatest gifts modern science has to offer.

A quick stroll through the parenting section at the bookstore provides all the evidence needed to conclude that modern parenting advice has become bloated with complex nonsense – as if you needed a Ph.D. in child-rearing before being fit to parent.

I won’t claim to have all the answers, or even to know much at all about parenting, but I did come across some information that is so sensible and straightforward that I felt compelled to pass it along.

This advice involves the way you praise your child.


Innocent as it may be, you could be unintentionally stifling your kid’s ability to reach their potential.  Paradoxically, words which you think are positive may actually be harmful.  Thankfully, a simple remedy is available that could have a dramatic effect on your child’s future.

Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success provides this remedy and is a valuable resource for parent’s who wish to foster their children’s ability to succeed.  She illustrates how the common sense relative to raising a capable child may actually do the exact opposite.  In this post, the second of a three-part series, I will provide the Coles notes of her superior method.

The Common Yet Crummy Approach

When young Timmy aces a math test, or has his English paper read out in class, or wins the spelling-bee, how do you typically respond?  If you’re like most parents, you react with a version similar to this: “Oh Timmy, fantastic job; you’re so smart! I’m so proud of you!”

Or how about when little Sally comes home from a tennis match where she obliterated the competition?  “Oh Sally, you’re so talented! You’re going to be the next Serena Williams! I bet you grow up and do something really special! We are so proud of you!”

You feel good.  Timmy feels good.  Sally feels good.  So, what’s wrong with that?

Well according to Dweck, basically everything.

The only real positive outcome of this approach is the immediate emotions that you and kid feel – aside from that, it’s all downhill.  Why? Because this form of praise produces the fixed mindset, which, as we saw in the first part of this series, is more concerned with proving and protecting than it is development.

Kids love praise, especially when it comes from their parents.  They crave it and will do what’s required to receive it.  And as long as they continually produce good grades or quality sports performances, they will have no shortage of glory to bask in.

But what happens when they fail at something?  Or when they make a mistake? Or get a bad grade? Where does that leave them?  Well, if success means they are smart and talented, then failure must mean they are dumb and incapable – at least that’s how they may interpret it.

“I am good at this but bad at that” – the dreaded fixed mindset.

Worse yet, what happens if, during the next tennis match, Sally gets easily defeated?  Here she thought she was the next Serena Williams but then got pummeled by some unknown newcomer – what the hell does that mean?

When you label your child as talented at this or that and praise them for it, you unknowingly communicate that their worth is tied to their ability to continually produce success.  They become stressed by challenge – which is the only way to make real progress – for challenge means possible failure.  And failure means a loss of praise and the identity of being “talented”.

To praise ability, to praise talent, is to stifle progress.  Don’t believe me? Here’s the science.

Praise Effort

Don’t praise attributes (“you’re so smart”, “you’re so talented”) – praise effort, praise improvement.

Regardless of whether your child has succeeded or failed at something, according to Dweck, the conversation should center around the effort put forth and any improvements made.

Convey that you don’t expect perfection or success but rather full effort.  Maintain a focus on improvement and always, always, always praise progress.

The result will be a child with the growth mindset; a mindset based on progression rather than proving themselves worthy of the labels assigned to them.  Science shows that by praising effort, children become more resilient – they cease to identify with failures and setbacks and instead seek to improve.

Also, it is important to stop kids from judging themselves after a tough experience.  Mentor them to understand that failure and setback is common and the most important thing is to learn from the experience and to try again, and that, through persistence, they can become whatever they want to become.

They truly can accomplish remarkable things, but not without you and not without learning to embrace challenge free from the fear of being label a failure.

One thought on “Foster Confidence, Not Fear: How to Talk to Your Child

  1. Beth Honeychurch

    Confidence is the greatest gift my Mom gave me. She wasn’t very confident ( and was scared of water) so she made sure her kids gained confidence (and got lots of swimming lessons)

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