How to Make a Snowflake: Praising Talent in Youth

How do we motivate young people to grow and develop? We know that criticizing them usually isn’t motivating, but what about encouraging them to believe they have talent?

Consider whether the following statements are motivating:

• You’re so clever.

• You’ve got real talent.

• You’re going to be a great artist.

Surprisingly, research suggests that these statements are often demotivating (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Praising talent or describing someone in terms of a category (for example, “artist”) tends to be reinforcing at first, but it can lead young people to derive all kinds of unhelpful evaluations and rules. To illustrate this point, take Matt. Matt aspires to be a writer. Let’s say he writes an excellent short story and his teacher says, “You’re so clever.” Here are a few rules Matt can derive:

• If I write well, then I’m clever.

• If I don’t write well, I’m not clever.

• It’s extremely important to be clever.

• I can lose my cleverness if I perform badly.

Matt may feel pleased by his teacher’s encouragement and he’s likely to want to hold on to the idea that he’s clever. After all, it’s one of the nicest things anybody has ever said to him. But if we look at the rules Matt derived, we can see that there’s a risk that wasn’t there before. If Matt doesn’t write well, he can “lose” the evaluation that he’s clever.

The Dangers

In general, praising talents can lead to two problems. First, it can make us cling to the idea of being talented. We want our advisor to be telling us how talented we are all the time, and we become afraid of doing anything that might make us think negatively about ourselves. We might even avoid challenging situations. But when we don’t challenge ourselves, we don’t grow.

Second, if we become convinced that our good performance indicates talent, what does bad performance indicate? It must follow that bad performance indicates lack of talent. Then, when we experience failure we feel deflated and our self-worth feels injured. And once again, we aren’t necessarily motivated to grow or improve.

Recent research illustrates the dangers of telling young people they’re talented (Yeager & Dweck, 2012). Imagine two groups of kids that are similar in verbal ability. You ask both groups to solve a series of problems. No matter how they perform, you tell one group that they’re talented at solving the problems, and this reinforces a fixed talent mind-set. You tell the second group that they’re hardworking, and this reinforces a growth mind-set. Sometime later, you offer both groups a chance to do easy puzzles or hard puzzles, and something interesting happens.

Research reveals that the kids praised for their talent choose to do easy puzzles, whereas those praised for being hardworking choose to do hard puzzles. The kids in the first group weren’t going to take any chances with losing their “talented” self-concept. In contrast, kids in the second group didn’t have a fixed self-concept to lose; their target behavior was trying hard.

This research also suggests that praising talent can increase the extent to which kids get upset with failure. Further, kids praised for talent are more likely to blame tests or others for their bad performance. This makes sense in the DNA-V model because praising talent feeds the advisor’s tendency to grab labels, whereas praising growth promotes the discoverer. Finally, kids praised for talent tend to be less persistent. They’re essentially working for self-esteem, rather than working to be highly effective at the task at hand (Dweck, 2000; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Yeager & Dweck, 2012).

Thus, teaching people to believe they’re a concept, such as talented or special, trains the advisor to become attached to these concepts, seeing them as parts of the self—fixed things that can be won or lost. However, with a flexible self-view, it becomes clear that “I’m special” is just an evaluation—just the advisor chattering. The way to prevent young people from becoming attached to self-concepts is to focus praise on the process, rather than the person. In the above example, telling young people they were hardworking reinforced the process of devoting effort to the task and persisting.

Here are four effective ways to praise and give feedback:

  1. Praise effort: When a young person gets a top mark, you can say, “Wow, you worked hard at that. You didn’t give up.”

  2. Praise strategy: When a young person is careful in making a tough decision, you can say, “It’s great that you considered many options before making that decision.”

  3. Praise choices: When a young person stands up for a friend, you can say, “It must have been hard to stand up for your friend, but it’s clear that friendship is important to you. Good for you.”

  4. Give corrective feedback: When a young person does poorly on a test, you can say, “Your study time may have been too low for this exam. How can you go about increasing your time commitment?”

The last strategy, corrective feedback, is particularly important because it shapes behavior in valued directions and develops strengths. Corrective feedback isn’t aimed at reinforcing a self-concept; rather, it seeks to reinforce values-consistent behavior. To understand the difference, consider these examples:

When someone makes a mistake, you can inadvertently reinforce self-concept by saying something like “Your problem is that you’re lazy.” Corrective feedback would instead seek to identify the behavior that could be corrected and, as shown in the example in the preceding list, suggest new or alternative behaviors the person could engage in.

In using praise, it’s important not to excuse suboptimal behavior. For example, if a child is performing poorly at school, a parent may be tempted to blame the teacher; this may even seem to be in the child’s best interests. But it implicitly teaches the child’s advisor a new rule: “If I fail, it’s because I was treated unfairly by others.” This can train young people to ignore feedback and blame others. Instead, we need to help them open up to useful feedback and recognize that they can grow and improve.

This excerpt is from the book The Thriving Adolescent: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology to Help Teens Manage Emotions, Achieve Goals, and Build Connection by Louise Hayes, PhD, and Joseph Ciarrochi, PhD.


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