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The Dangers of Praise: leadership lessons for parents

The content of this post is based on the work of Carol Dweck on Mindset

See if you can figure out what’s wrong with this type of praise…

  • You’re so clever at that, you did it without even trying!
  • You’re so good at drawing!
  • You did a great job on that – it took you hardly any time at all!
  • You could be great at any sport you have such a natural talent for it!

If you are anything like me a few years ago, you may not be able to see anything wrong with it.

Research by Carol Dweck on mindset helped me to understand otherwise.

When I discovered Dwecks work and started to learn about fixed and growth mindsets I realised that I had been creating a fixed mindset in my children simply by my use of language and approach to praise. I felt terrible. What had I done to them! Fortunately, further reading around neuroscience and neuroplasticity by authors such as Daniel Siegel and Norman Doidge to name a few, helped me to understand that it is never too late to make changes in the way we parent, communicate and use language – within our family (or even at work) All is not lost! Brains don’t stop growing!

So What is a Fixed and a Growth Mindset?

In a nutshell a fixed mindset as described by Carol Dweck is one that believes that all we can ever be is all we currently are. That we were born with our intelligence and there is no changing it, or the things we can achieve as a result of it. People with a fixed mindset may say to themselves ‘I can do this, but I can’t do that, I don’t have the talent for it’. Fear of failure and lack of persistence are often present.

In contrast, a growth mindset is one that believes that with hard work, effort and through learning from mistakes, you can build and increase your intelligence and ability to accomplish the things you want to accomplish. You might say to yourself, ‘that went wrong, so what can I learn so that I can improve on it next time’. People with this mindset are persistent and learn from both criticism other peoples successes.

Of course people are not usually either or but often a mixture of both.

How to Praise for a Growth Mindset

The reason that I began this post with praise is because we can help people develop a growth or fixed mindset, according to Dweck, by the way we praise. And the way we praise has a direct impact on how open we are to learning and building our intelligence.

The type of praise above creates a fixed mindset because it praises intelligence and natural talent instead of effort. Here they are again together with how each is perceived.

  • You’re so clever at that, you did it without even trying!

( If I have to try hard I am not clever)

  • You’re so good at drawing!

(I had better not draw anything harder than this or they will think I am not good at it)

  • You did a great job on that – it took you hardly any time at all!

(If I take my time I’m not doing a good job)

  • You could be great at any sport you have such a natural talent for it!

(If I start to train it will mean I don’t have talent)

This type of praise as you can probably imagine has the potential to prevent effort, reduce motivation, can even lower grades and reduce self-esteem.

Instead, praise for effort instead of intelligence and persistence

  • Wow you worked so hard at that and look what you have achieved!

Celebrate when your kids (or co-workers) do something that is hard or they make a mistake and try again.

  • I am so impressed that you learnt from your mistake and had another go – you are really showing a lot of persistence.

Be specific and sincere when you praise. Keep it short and use observations and questions.

  • I love the colours you have used in that picture and it really shows how much effort you put into to staying inside the lines.
  • What did you learn from that mistake?

There is obviously a lot more to mindset than I have time to write here and I would love to hear from you.

If you would like to know more about mindset check out the workshops for term 3 (Sydney) in Imperfect Parenting. Also Parent coaching is available for those who prefer a one on one experience.

Otherwise let me know what you would like me to write more about.


  1. Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset. London: Robinson.
  2. Accessed May 2015
  3. Accessed May 2015
  4. Accessed May 2015
  5. Daniel Siegel & Mary Hartzell (2014). Parenting from the inside out: Scribe Publications
  6. Daniel Siegel, (2014). Brainstorm. Brunswick: Scribe Publications
  7. Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself. New York: Viking.
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