In Other Words
First, to be clear, if you’ve ever used the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” it’s highly unlikely you’ve caused irrevocable harm. I’m using that phrase as a general example of the power of words to affect an individual’s thoughts and perceptions. It is my hope that by drawing attention to what we do and say you and your staff will be mindful in interactions and conversations with youth.
Let’s look at a second example related to praise and the psychological research I referenced earlier in the article. Anyone who has ever coached, taught, or supported someone in a new endeavor has at some point said something like, “Wow, you’re really good at ____!” Again, this nice-sounding and well-meaning phrase can have some unintended and adverse impacts on a child’s developing sense of self and ability.
By telling a child he or she is really good at something, the message that may be received is that the talent or ability is fixed and in many ways beyond the child’s control. Think about a child who passes a beginner swim test with flying colors. A well-meaning instructor says, “Wow, you’re really good at freestyle and floating.” For the next test, the child is asked to perform the backstroke and put his or her face completely under the water. The second test does not go well. What is the child to think about an ability to backstroke and go under water? He or she may believe that while they’re good at freestyle and floating they’re not so good at backstroke and floating. Returning to our earlier example, if a person doesn’t believe there is a reasonable likelihood of success, the motivation to continue trying may be lost. In this case, it might be very difficult to convince the child to continue trying to work on the backstroke or putting one’s face in the water.
Now, let’s take the previous example and change a few words. After the first successful test, the instructor says, “Wow, you worked really hard on your freestyle and floating.” The second test doesn’t go well, but this time when the child thinks about the ability to go under and backstroke, instead of attributing the failure to lack of ability, it becomes a question of effort and persistence. That is something that can be controlled and the child will likely have gained some experience in persevering in other areas. In this case, it probably won’t be so difficult to convince the child to jump back in and keep working.
Say What You Really Mean
The bottom line is that everyone regardless of age wants to succeed, and we've evolved to continually evaluate why we succeed and why we fail. As adults working with young people, we are in a great place to help shape children’s thinking about their abilities and to help them recognize the value of effort, while at the same time avoiding the fostering of the unrealistic expectation that they can master everything they try. I encourage all of you to be mindful of your words and actions, to say what you really mean, and the next time a youngster is struggling to learn something new, to remind the individual that in almost every case, “Practice makes pretty good.”