Work Hard. Be Nice. How to Evoke Grit and Goodness.

I’m not going to lie… I want my daughter June to be smart. I want her to do well in school, then be showered with academic scholarships to college, have an amazing career, and single-handedly close the gender pay gap… that's all. 

But, unfortunately, her mother (me) isn’t exactly the sharpest crayon in the box. I had to work so hard to graduate college with a GPA that wasn’t laughable, attending office hours daily, studying for weeks for finals, hiring tutors for $20-25 an hour to break down subjects like trigonometry, biology and economics to an elementary level so this twenty-year-old could slide by with a C. I remember getting a whopping 13 out of 30 on my first college test. I called my dad hysterical telling him I don’t know how I got in to college, but I wasn’t cut out for it, and to make room because I'd be moving back into his basement at the end of the semester. Fortunately, I did have a couple things going for me. I was very curious, I had a little bit of social intelligence, and I learned to get through tough situations with a lot of grit and perseverance. Because of these qualities I did graduate college, and didn't move back into my dad's basement... until six years later when I started grad school.

Currently, in the education world, there is talk about qualities such as perseverance, grit, self-control, and empathy, or “character”. There has been a major shift from thinking that character refers to something innate or unchanging, a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence, to now looking at character as a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable, completely malleable (Tough, p. 59). They are skills you can learn, practice and teach. I am fortunate enough to get to teach a character class to 500+ kindergarten through third-graders for a living, and am an absolute believer that kids can be taught to embody these character strengths.

In Dr. Dana Suskind's book Thirty Million Words she focuses on how the language we use with our kids can evoke certain character traits, specifically grit and goodness. First, it's important to understand the difference between process-based praise and person-based praise as Professor Carol Dweck defines them in her book Mindset. An example of process-based praise is when your child brings home an "A" on their math test saying, "I know you studied really hard for that test to be sure you understood the material. It looks like your hard work paid off. Good job!" as opposed to "You're so good at math; you're a math wiz!". And, as you might have guessed, person-based praise is praising the person. When Johnny scores the winning goal of his basketball game person-based praise would sound like: "You're so good at basketball, just like your dad. You're a natural." as opposed to "Those extra hours you put in practicing your three-point shot with your dad really showed today! Way to go!"

Person-based praise, or telling a child he or she is "smart", "amazing", "a natural", or "the best" unfortunately does not produce a child that will grow up to be "smart", "amazing", "a natural" or "the best". According to Suskind, praising a child in this way is actually counterproductive and counterintuitive because when the child inevitably runs into a situation where something doesn't come natural he or she will be more likely to give up, whether is be on a math test or on the basketball court. This type of praise creates what Dweck has defined as a fixed mindset, or the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits that cannot be developed. Dweck's research supports that children who have heard person-based praise have been found to be more likely to give up when things became challenging, and were more likely to lie about achievement in order to appear smarter (Suskind, p. 105). 

Process-based praising helps children develop a growth mindset, or the belief that your basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. When the effort, or process, is praised the child understands that they aren't just a natural, but that their hard work is what caused them be successful. This is important because even if children have natural abilities, they will always need to be honed. As I tell my students: "Even Michael Jordan was cut from the middle school basketball team." Angela Duckworth, the grit guru, says that children who have more of a growth mind-set tend to be grittier; children with the growth mind-set are much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition (Suskind, p. 104). (Check out this video for more info on fixed vs. growth mindset.)


Now, the whole growing a kind, considerate, compassionate kid part… forget everything you just read. Seriously. When is comes to praising children to develop empathy, kindness and goodness we should praise them with person-based praise. Unlike praising talent or intelligence, we want children to feel like they ARE intrinsically good. For example, if I see June share her toys I would say, "You ARE such a good friend" as opposed to "It was really nice of you to share your toys." This makes her feel like she is a good person or friend, not that she made the choice to be, and that she has the choice not to be. Adam Grant, the author of the article Raising a Moral Child says, "When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become a part of us.” (Suskind, p. 125)

Again, research supports that person-based praise evokes empathy and goodness. Suskind references a study in her book where children were praised either as individuals or for their behavior. The children who had been praised as individuals were more likely to be generous when presented with the opportunity for generosity several weeks later (Suskind, p. 125). In addition, children who were asked to be “helpers” were more likely to help researchers than children who were asked “would you help?” She suggests this is true because most people want to be good and nouns are like mirrors, showing us who we are.

In summary, praise the process if you want a gritty child; praise the person if you want a good child. I suggest a balance of both so all kids know how to work hard and be nice. Now, if I can just get my husband to stop telling June how pretty she is because of course I want to help her have a huge brain, but not a big head.