Phrasing praise

image courtesy of www.openclipart.org

image courtesy of http://www.openclipart.org

In response to a previous post the suggestion was made that I compile a list of “yet” phrases that teachers and parents could use to encourage children to develop a growth, as opposed to fixed, mindset.

Only since I have been blogging have I come across the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist, who promotes a “yet” mindset. I am very much in favour of the “yet” way of thinking and have shared some thoughts here and here. However I am not yet ready to embrace the whole package.

I have just listened to Dweck’s book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” and it would be fair to say that I am struggling to accept all that she proposes with equal enthusiasm. In fact I find some of her suggestions rather challenging.

Previous posts, including the one mentioned above and others linked within it, have led to some very interesting and thought-provoking discussions about praise.  Some involved in the discussion were ready to embrace the idea of praising a child for effort rather than talent. Others could see no harm in bestowing any form of praise on their children and had not felt themselves limited by being praised for their cleverness.

Dweck suggests ways of encouraging a growth mindset by thinking about what was learned or what could be learned. She says that children should not think they are special just by being, and suggests that if a child scores 100% on a paper the response should be something like, “That was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time. Let’s find something more challenging so you can learn.”

In the book Dweck shares the experience of replacing her own fixed mindset with a growth mindset. She concedes it is difficult and that regressions can occur. She shares her personal disappointment when, after they had both struggled with a problem for some time, her husband arrived at a solution and she praised him with “Excellent!” or “Brilliant!”. She was crestfallen at her lapse; until her husband explained that he knew she meant that he had worked hard, put in the effort, tried alternatives and finally solved the problem.

(Note: I am explaining these scenarios in my words not hers. Usually when I have listened to an audiobook and wish to discuss it, I buy the paper or ebook version so that I can quote accurately. I haven’t done that this time as I’m not sure which version is the same, if any, as the audiobook. Throughout this post you are receiving my interpretation or impression. You will need to go to the source for greater detail and accuracy.)

While I agree that it is important for continual learning to be the goal, I’m not sure that I am opposed to some form of congratulations being given for achievement, as well as effort. Also I think children need to be accepted for who they are, loved and nurtured, without the need to be anything else. I’ve written about that here and here and discussed the use of affirmation songs such as Special as I can Be by Anne Infante. I know it is important to not overdo the “special” bit, but it is also important for them to feel comfortable with who they are.

Image courtesy of Anne

Image courtesy of Anne

Yes, they (we) do need to be encouraged to improve. But surely there is danger in feeling that results are always wanting, that they are never good enough. In fact, in the book, Dweck describes a girl who developed ulcers while striving to fulfill the high expectations she perceived her parents to hold. I think getting the balance right is the tricky bit. Encourage. Inspire. Motivate. But don’t demand, require, stress or, perhaps, judge.

Somewhere in my recent reading I came across the following “motivational” video, a clip from a movie of which I wasn’t aware. While I don’t wish to misrepresent Carol Dweck and suggest that she would “praise” this method, I think it could be taken as an interpretation (I hope extreme and incorrect) of her philosophy. Have a look and let me know what you think.

I felt extremely uncomfortable watching this video. I am not a sportsperson so I may not understand the culture of sports training but:

I felt sorry for the player, Brock, who was pushed to and beyond his “limits”. Sometimes that may be necessary but surely not just to “please” a coach; and this seems to be more about the needs of the coach than the player, “revenge” perhaps for thinking the other team was better prepared (I know it’s just a movie). I was worried that the player was going to have a heart attack and die on the field. I was disappointed that none of his team members intervened to protect him from the bullying coach or to help him with his load. I would definitely find it difficult to work with a manager or coach like that.

While I do not wish to take away from Dweck’s philosophy, many of the examples in her book discuss the mindsets of winners, of champions. Surely not everyone can be a champion. And if you have to push yourself, as Brock did in the video, to do your best, then I’m not sure I want to do my best.

Some people have described me as a perfectionist. I have never accepted that label. I work hard to do the best job I can, but I also recognise when good enough is good enough. Working within the constraints of resources, including time, imposes limits. Is that a limiting fixed attitude? Maybe I need to work a little more on my growth mindset.

As for the suggestion of compiling a list of “yet” phrases, I don’t think I am quite ready to tackle that one yet. Besides, I think Dweck has done it herself!

Mindset explores Dweck’s philosophy more fully. There you can test your own mindset, read some suggestions for Parents, Teachers and Coaches (and other applications) and find out about Brainology, a program written by Dweck and Blackwell to “Motivate students to grow their minds”.

There is much to explore. I have given but a few snippets here. There is much more learning for me to do.

Thank you

Thank you for reading I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

18 thoughts on “Phrasing praise

  1. Charli Mills

    While I like the whole “not yet” idea, I also struggle to understand my natural inclination to encourage. Often praise can be encouraging to continue the effort. I find this all makes me think it’s all so complicated! I believe in celebrating achievements because sometimes it did take so much effort to arrive there and often, despite the achievement, the actual goal has not yet been met. You’ve given me a lot to think about and I can tell you are mulling this over, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Norah Post author

      Mulling indeed. It is very complicated, and it is difficult to always do the “right” thing, because the right thing varies from person to person and situation to situation. We do our best and we do try. Hopefully the positive effects of our words and actions outweigh the negative. Your words are always, positive, supportive and encouraging. I appreciate them.

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  2. Sarah Brentyn

    Wow. Another amazing discussion from one of your posts. I don’t have much to add to this. I agree with a lot of what’s been said here. I cannot leave without adding (yes, here’s another one) that this: “That was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time.” is ridiculous. Utter nonsense, trash, and would do nothing but make a child feel either superior or, more likely, like their absolute best was not good enough. It reads as if the child worked and studied and received a perfect grade and now they’re being punished for that by having to do even more. I, for one, would purposefully tank my next test.

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  3. Annecdotist

    Another great post and discussion. I didn’t watch the video, assuming I wouldn’t like it is personally I don’t believe it’s always beneficial to be pushed to extremes. But I do take Sacha’s point that if you want to be the best in sport you really have to suffer for it. But surely we shouldn’t always want or need to be the best?
    There’s a difference here between what’s good for children and what’s good for adults: adults have choice in a way that children don’t. I think children have to have a baseline acceptance of who they are before being pushed to move on. I do like Elizabeth’s rephrasing of the “sorry we’ve wasted your time” response, there needs to be an acknowledgement of that achievement but still noting the potential to progress further.
    I don’t entirely agree with the growth mindset for adults; I think we can choose that we’ve done enough (and perhaps make way for the next generation). I think of my situation in having just achieved an ambition of publishing a novel: I’m currently celebrating that achievement but also moving on, working hard on publicity and thinking about my next novel and the one after that! But I COULD choose to leave it at this, and I think that’s really important. We don’t have to keep pushing for higher goals but can find contentment with what we’ve got. That’s quite a skill too.

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, Anne for bringing your knowledge and experience to the conversation. I think the difference you see between what is appropriate for children and what for adults is spot on. Adults do have a choice. They may not want to make one, would rather complain about their conditions rather than attempt to change them or walk away; but that is a choice. Children don’t always have that choice, and I think to be constantly given something more challenging could be soul destroying. What’s the point of completing one (often in school) meaningless task to simply be given another more difficult. If children had more input into what they learned about the projects would inspire their interests and challenge their abilities to explore, discover and innovate.
      I think making room for the younger generation is a good thing. It is useful sometimes to stop, take a breath and reassess. I am so pleased you are celebrating your success in publishing your novel, but you don’t have to write another “better” one straight away! There are many other things for you to explore, all of which will extend and add richness to your professionalism and life.
      Contentment is a skill. I could take that right now. But persistence is too. I need that right now! Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Sherri

    Ahh Norah, I can see that your excellent, thought-provoking post will give rise to a wondeful debate here. I could say so much (now there’s a surprise I hear you say, ha!) as I compare my childhood to that of my children. Growing up within a British school system in the 60’s and 70’s, my experience of praise (neglible, at best,) was polar opposite to that received by my children attending schools in California. For me, it was more like ‘pay attention, do your homework, and well done’ (If I was lucky) when I got a good grade. My dad was out of the picture, as you know, and my mother told me just to ‘do my best’. So I did. If I had heard this after getting 100%: ‘“That was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time. Let’s find something more challenging so you can learn.” I would have been utterly crushed. Or would I? Would I think: ‘Wasting my time? Wow, I must be something really special then!’ Dangerous!! I can’t help but think of the X Factor which to me perfectly demonstrates the difference between those who have real talent and those who are utterly deluded, who can’t sing to save themselves but have been told all their lives that they are ‘wonderful, amazing superstars’…
    I encouraged my kids that no matter what, they should always do their level best and work hard at whatever they did, and not just within the confines of the classroom. Lifelong. I didn’t want to push them to excel to the point of unrealistic expectations or to be ‘perfect’ so that anything less was unacceptable: I wanted them to experience the life-long sense of achievement and fulfillment and satisfaction that comes from knowing that even if ‘it’ doesn’t work out or go as planned or they don’t do as well as they hoped, they at least know they did all they possibly could, without giving up. Some might not agree with this and I admit, I was defnintely not a Tiger Mom 😉
    And yes, absolutely Norah, I agree, children should be loved and accepted for who they are and not what what they have or haven’t achieved. To me, living with constant critisicm disguised as ‘helping to excel’ is soul destroying. Nothing is ever good enough. That message never goes away…
    But praise? I was amazed how at my children’s schools, my children were praised for being kind to one another, for being helpful and for listening properly. That blew me away. How wonderful to be praised for something other than schoolwork! I was so grateful that my kids had that experience.
    And the movie clip? All I kept thinking of was ‘Rocky’ and expecting ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to start playing any moment. Except that ‘Rocky’ did it to himself 😮 Seriously though, I wasn’t surprised by the clip, thinking that this kind of motivational showing is common in sport’s programmes in the States? I played a lot of sports at school and did gymnastics, but the only motivation I remember is of an ex-army PE Teacher with arms the size of tree trunks yelling at us and blowing into her whistle while we ran (stumbled more like) across muddy fields, played field hockey in frigid temperatures and climbed ropes in the gym in our navy blue knickers and white, artex shirts, motivated to keep moving out of fear of her wrath. Reminds me of my first employer for some strange reason…but that’s another story…
    Well Norah, I have rambled enough, please forgive me for this far too long comment. This is the effect you have on us, you see! I am clinging on to the final vestiges of blogging and you had to give us this doozy of a blog post to get our teeth into. I love the way you write and present every single one of your posts so professionally with your clips and links and the way you so excellently illustrate your points, and the way you write with such balance.
    I will miss being here, but I so look forward to returning and joining in with the fray…take good care and I’ll see you soon! Over and out 🙂 xx

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Ah, Sherri. I am going to miss you and the wonderful way you elaborate on every point, sharing your experiences and life’s lessons, filling out my posts and increasing their value, along with my learning.
      When you are not spending your time with such rich contributions to the blogs of others, and are concentrating on your own writing, imagine how much you will achieve! 🙂 I wish you much success.
      Thank you so much for sharing the comparison between the types of feedback received by you and your children. I think it is great to acknowledge when children have been kind or friendly to each other. If we don’t tell them that we appreciate that type of behaviour, how will they ever know? Yes, we can model it, but ‘these days’ the emphasis is on being explicit so I think telling them in words, as well as modelling (that’s very important too) is great.
      I haven’t ever watched the XFactor but I saw a little of The Voice here tonight which must be similar I think. I am always amazed at the talent that is out there. There must be a certain amount of luck in being successful, I think, as so many people have beautiful singing voices. Sadly I am not one of them, but I am happy with my ability to write. When you give feedback such as you have it makes me feel I am doing something right and encourages me to continue. Thank you so much for that. I appreciate it.
      I’m pleased I never had a coach like you describe. It don’t like the sound of that at all. I never liked calisthenics that we used to do at school or college. At school I would be down the back (I was tall) and would “pretend” (as much as I could) that I was joining in. At college when we were doing forward rolls and things like that I would wait for the lecturer to turn her back and then “pretend” that I had done it, and of course every swimming day as TOM – that excuse wouldn’t pass these days, but it did then. 🙂
      Best wishes with your writing. I look forward to your return to the blogosphere with good news about your progress. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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      1. Sherri

        Hi Norah! Finishing up blogging and just read your wonderful replies. Thank you so much for all you share. I’m so glad that my feedback encourages you, wow, that’s great and you’ve just made my day! You are doing what you are called to do no doubt about it and in that you excel 🙂 Just like those wonderful singers. The ones with the talent I mean 😉 Dear Norah, I will miss our chats very much but I thank you so much for your kind wishes and for your ongoing support and encouragement. We are SMAGGED out and I love it 😀 I’ll remember that when I’m feeling cut off from you all (as I am already feeling a bit but with so much to get done before going away there is no way I could have blogged this week). I look forward very much to catching up with you again soon! Take care and happy writing to us both 🙂 xx

        Liked by 1 person

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks Sherri. We are indeed SMAGGERS! If you’re feeling cut off, and you need some support, remember we are only a tap on the keyboard away!
          Wishing you speedy progress and work that pleases you. Happy writing. See you soon. 🙂 xx

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  5. Rosemary Kitchin

    I like previous authors think “where to start”. I only dip into your posts as time allows and I am never dissappointed with the thought provoking content.

    Today’s post leads to lots of discussion…I agree with Bec about the distinction between praise for the achievement vs the person. I think in my interaction with small children as the moment I am in danger of praise for praise sake…I need to be more thoughtful and appropriate to the situation…thanks for the trigger.

    I am not sure I agree with you Norah re the sports coach (though I too found it uncomfortable). I think of the people in my life who have stretched me the most, demanded the most..they were the tough ones. But underneath it was a belief that I could do it…not for them but for me. In some ways the coach was proving to the player that he could do it. I believe it was to bring our his leadership abilities and for the good of the team overall. Norah, I bet there are many times in your life where you have really pushed yourself (and been pleased with the result!)?

    I need to learn more about the growth mindset…thanks for being this to my attention! Bless you

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for reading and adding your voice to the conversation this time, Rosemary. I’m sure the timely reminder re praising for achievement will be implemented well!
      Thanks for your insights re the video and the coach. Sacha also disagreed with me on that one. I’m happy to accept some disagreement. It encourages me to stretch my thinking and consider alternatives. I’m pleased you were extended by tough “coaches” who saw your potential and believed in your ability.
      As for times in my life when I’ve pushed myself – I’ll have to think about that. But I think you have caught what it is for me in that statement: when I pushed myself. I think when others have attempted to push me I have probably shut down and turned off. I’m not sure though. I’ll have to think a bit more about it. So thanks for the challenge. (Are you pushing me?)

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  6. Sacha Black

    Oooooooh Norah, this ones a corker of a post. Where do I even start?

    Firstly, this quote: “That was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time. Let’s find something more challenging so you can learn.”

    Made me instantly cross. I do think that children need praise, and I don’t think you can praise a child too much – as long as the praise is worthy. I don’t think a child deserves praise if they haven’t tried. But if they have tried, no matter their test mark, they deserve the credit for what they have done.

    Now, the video. I have to say I disagree with you. Don’t think that’s ever happened before?! Sports, like you say, is a certain mindset. I have, as has my wife, played a lot of sports. Pushing yourself in sports, is very definitely mind over matter. It does burn, it hurts like hell, but YOU CAN do it if you tell yourself you can. I actually have been known to scream like that at myself! I am known for it – my poor running budding has to put up with it! She jokes that she worries the other runners trotting passed us think she’s murdering me! I’m not quite sure of the link of physical exertion to screaming and ‘beasting’ oneself. But that is the phrase I use when I work out. I do a training programme called insanity, I have been known to push so hard I throw up, I have made myself cry, not been able to walk for days for the agony and muscle aches, and I tell you what. I LOVE EVERY SECOND OF IT. The endorphins coursing through your body is a high I can only imagine is something akin to taking drugs!! Look at the famous sports people, tennis players grunt every time they hit the ball. It’s not for everyone mind, but certainly most of the personal trainers and sports people I know adopt a similar mentality.

    I think sport is just very different to education. I couldn’t imagine anything worst than that kind of behaviour in a classroom. Utterly inappropriate for that setting, but perfect on the field! x

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you so much for your rich response, Sacha.
      Your comment on praise is excellent – praising the effort rather than or despite the result. I like that – you tried hard but let’s see how we can help you understand it better, or achieve more.
      And thanks for sharing your “insanity” in sport! I’ve never gone down that road. The metal I’m made of is not that tough, and I don’t get the need for that exertion. I did play competitive tennis at school and basketball in college but have never had a great love of exercise. I did write about that once here: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-3E
      I often look at the people out walking, running or cycling who obviously take it all very seriously. Me? I’d rather walk for the pleasure (or not at all, which is more often the case. I know I should but there are many other things I’d rather do. I’ve let my wiifit slip. I must get back into that. Only a month or two now until swimming season again, so I look forward to that.)
      It’s funny you mention tennis players grunting. When Bec was about one year old I noticed that every time she bent down to pick something up she would grunt. I couldn’t understand why. Then one day I realised – every time I bent down to pick something up I would grunt. She obviously thought it was something that had to be done – a learned habit! Funny! 🙂
      I’m pleased you say that education and sport are different, and I am really happy to hear your different perspective on this video and its content. Thank you so much for sharing your sporting experiences.

      Liked by 2 people

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  7. Autism Mom

    So very well thought out, thank you!

    I was struck by this, too: “That was too easy. Sorry for wasting your time. Let’s find something more challenging so you can learn.”

    I think if I read that on my work as a child, I would have cried, my feeling of success completely crushed. Maybe something better might be “Congratulations! It looks like you’ve mastered that concept and are ready to move on to the next challenge.” That praises the work that went into that 100% while still priming the learner for the next step.

    Liked by 4 people

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Elizabeth. I very much like your alternative encouraging statement. It recognises achievement and encourages growth – a great mix of what we are after I think. I would have cried too and wondered what was the point!

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. Bec

    Very interesting and thought-provoking as always, Nor – you have made a great effort at writing this post (!!!).

    I wonder if another division is about praising the person versus the action (or work or whatever it may be). ‘That is great work’ or ‘you are great’ – to me is very different. But it’s still praise either way. Great work can come from hard work, but being great is effortless greatness. I always have felt uncomfortable if being praised or critiqued about what I am, but it is must easier to accept feedback about something I have done when the framing of the sentence is around the work, e.g. ‘there are some logical inconsistencies in the arguments’ or ‘you’re not very logical’ for a critique, and ‘your work is very insightful’ or ‘you are very insightful’ for praise. In either case, it’s clear to me which is more comfortable and which is compatible with either a fixed or growth mindset.

    This is related to something my friend Anna told me – I thought she was providing a quotation but I can’t find a source. Maybe it was her own wisdom – she is overflowing with wisdom. Is that about her or her actions?? The concept was along the lines of: if a person does enough good things that they come to think of their self as a *good person*, then they no longer need to evaluate the goodness of their actions as by default whatever they do must be good.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Bec. I did put a lot of effort into the post. Though I really should have accessed a print copy and made sure I was accurately quoting Dweck, shouldn’t I? I guess I was satisfied that what I had done was good enough – sharing my own reflections. Hmm. Growth or fixed?
      I agree with you about the doer or the actions. I don’t find that distinction difficult, and think that the feedback to work, as you have suggested, is extremely helpful. But to even say that work is “good” without explaining why is insufficient on some levels too. Sometimes it is almost intangible, hard to ‘put the finger on’ or express, but it is worth trying to do so. Of course, the opposite is true too. Any confusion or failure needs to be explained. Inadequacies need to be understood for improvement to follow.
      Your friend Anna is indeed very wise. I think I have read (or thought) something similar before: If we believe it is right to be good/kind/nice and we do our best to be that, do we really become good/kind/nice or are we only pretending or trying to be so? Are the actions more important than the intent?

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