Here’s something that I wish I had learned before I had children:
Process praise focuses on the effort and strategy behind a specific behavior. “You worked hard!” “You thought of a terrific way to help that person.” In contrast, person praise involves making global assessments based on specific behavior. “You are so smart!” “You are so kind!” Process praise tends to be motivating, to increase self-confidence, and to lead to mastery behavior, while person praise promotes avoidance of challenges and greater fear of failure.
I picked up this bit of wisdom from Carol Dweck, who recently published a book called Mindset. She describes two different mindsets, or views people adopt about themselves:
The fixed mindset is a belief that your abilities are carved in stone. So everything you do, success or failure, reveals what you are. With this mindset, failures are signs of deficits in abilities. People with fixed mindsets believe they were dealt a particular set of basic abilities at birth. They feel a need to prove over and over that they got a good set, and find any evidence to the contrary highly unsettling.
The growth mindset is based on the belief that one can cultivate basic abilities, changing and growing through application and experience. Carol Dweck illustrates this mindset with people who were considered ordinary as children: Darwin and Tolstoy.
While the mindset is within the individual, other people can affect it by the kind of praise they give. Process praise encourages the growth mindset, while person praise reinforces the fixed mindset.
This makes me think about my father and his older brother. Both applied to be Rhodes scholars in the years after World War II, and both were turned down. My father decided to try again. He contacted some of the interviewers to find out what he was missing. Then he formed a plan, concluding that it would take him longer than a year, so he reapplied in two years. Did he want it more than his older brother? Did he have more persistence? Or did his position in the family, younger brother to an eldest son known in the family as absolutely brilliant, somehow free him from having to live up to a fixed set of abilities, giving him the freedom to believe he could grow into what he wanted? Who knows?
My father did get the Rhodes Scholarship the second time around, which is why I was born in England. I posted the parts of his second application essay on Positive Psychology News Daily that concerned his vision for the future. Here are some additional bits that show his views about trying again:
Two years ago I had the privilege of appearing before the district board of selection for Rhodes Scholars. That I was not selected is significant to me because, more than any other factor, it has caused me to review my aim in life and the means of attaining that aim. I realized how inadequately prepared I was for undertaking a course of study at Oxford, yet what an impetus toward my object a tenure at that institution could give me. Most important, it would give me the opportunity to devote all of my time to study under conditions and in surroundings ideal for maximum achievement. Last year, on being assured that competition would once more be open, I decided to forego appling and to concentrate my efforts toward making myself worthy of selection this year.
Despite the necessity of spending much of my time in professional study, [He went to aviator training school.] I have succeeded in developing a consciousness of liberal thought. I have learned a little about the political and philosophical developments of past centuries leading to man’s present social instincts and shortcomings. My interest in the relations and problems of peoples and states has grown, and the development of international intercourse, including the organization and functioning of the United Nations, continues to absorb me. I have endeavored to keep abreast of current events by way of news sources. From all this has developed the embryo of a political thought and the realization of the necessity of continuing to develop that thought at Oxford if I am successful in this quest, but other means if necessary.
I just hope that my ratio of process praise to person praise helped my own children develop growth mindsets. I didn’t know enough to work on it intentionally.