“You’re so smart!”
These three words come easily to mind when children do or say something that demonstrates intelligence. Yet study after study shows that such praise, while nice to hear, undermines children’s motivation to learn new things. It suggests that intelligence is a fixed trait – something they can’t change – and thus learning should come easily because they’re smart.
These same studies suggest that children who see personal traits as fixed are afraid to try new things they perceive as difficult. They see other children as competitors rather than collaborators, so they dislike teamwork. And they are more inclined to hide mistakes or lie about their achievements to preserve a positive sense of their abilities.
Rather than praise traits, psychology professor Carol Dweck says that we should acknowledge effort instead. Say, “I see how hard you worked to stay focused and resist distractions while you were meditating” instead of “You’re a great meditator!” Or “I like the way you adjusted your posture when the yoga instructor gave you feedback” instead of “You’re a natural at yoga!”
Focusing on your child’s efforts helps them develop a growth mindset. They come to see effort as a useful activity rather than something they have to do because they aren’t smart enough to grasp a new spiritual idea or practice easily. Setbacks become opportunities to strategize new ways to figure something out. And when they accomplish their goals, they feel exhilarated, like a climber who has topped Mt. Everest.
This growth mindset can positively affect all aspects of children’s lives, including their spirituality. Learning to be mindful, or make ethical decisions, or appreciate and care for the natural world, takes work. Being able to separate effort from intelligence, admit struggles, and see others as spiritual partners rather than competitors is essential to spiritual development.
In addition to avoiding trait-based praise, Dweck’s research identified another important action that parents and caregivers can take to support a growth mindset in children: teach them about their brains. IQ tests and social messaging have led children to believe that they have little control over their ability to learn. Yet when adults tell them the truth about the brain – that it is malleable and able to make new connections all the time – children realize that effort affects outcomes.
That means a child who spends 5 minutes sitting quietly is training both their body and their mind to associate stillness with peacefulness. Once their brain makes that connection (through repetitive effort), then longer stretches of stillness become possible. The same is true for practices of ethical decision-making and social responsibility. Children can teach their brain to run through a series of value choices or recognize a situation that calls for change so they are ready to act quicker and more effectively the next time around.
Knowing that intelligence is not fixed but malleable can give children the confidence they need to keep trying even when a spiritual practice feels daunting. So celebrate their efforts and not their innate ability – in the long run, they’ll be glad you made the distinction.