Dear Parents,

Anyone remember the 19th century adage, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you?”  I think we’ve all had an experience that has proven this wrong.  Words can and do hurt and are unacceptable.  But what if what we think the words we’re using are helpful?   What if they aren’t?  Research conducted by Carole Dweck from Stanford University makes the case that people develop growth mindsets or fixed mindsets based in part on the words they hear growing up.  A fixed mindset believes intelligence is something you have, and can’t be changed much.  A growth mindset believes that no matter what kind of person you are, you can always change.  Success then is not about proving you’re smart or talented, it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new.  Developing yourself.  Failure then, becomes a learning experience and not something that confirms your intelligence.  Dweck believes mindsets are a choice; they are beliefs that are shaped by the words we hear from others and internalize to ourselves. 

Consider this phrase, “I’m proud of you”.    As a parent and educator, I’ve said it many times.  What could possibly be the problem?  Consider a study by Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck conducted with kindergarten students.  They found that phrases like “I’m proud of you”, had the same effect on students as the phrase, “I’m disappointed in you.”  It’s just the other end of the same conversation.   The research goes on to state that if we say, “I’m proud of you” when children are successful, they often fill in the other end of the conversation and begin to believe we are disappointed in them when they are unsuccessful. 

The moral of the story (says Peter Johnston in his book Opening Minds) is:  don’t use person-oriented praise.  Instead, use process-oriented feedback.    So “I’m proud of you” becomes:  “You tried really hard” or “You found a good way to do it; could you think of other ways that would also work?”   Small changes in language can be significant in whether we see our lives (and performances) as “fixed” and therefore out of our control or “changeable” and in our control.  We’re not suggesting that praise is always bad or that we stop completely.  Rather, the suggestion is that we begin to look at feedback and critiques as opportunities to learn and grow.   That we consider intelligence as something that can be improved with effort.   

Little things can add up to make big differences.  Consider giving feedback in place of praise.  Norman Vincent Peale felt strongly about this and said, “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise, than saved by criticism.”