When my boys were in preschool and first grade, I heard a lot about the importance of praise. I was thrilled to discover the handout, 100 Ways to Praise, which I promptly fastened to my refrigerator. I was working on shifting my attention from the stuff that drove me crazy – one boy whining for a glass a milk while another poked his brother in the ribs, to noticing pleasant behaviors – one child cleaning up a game without being reminded, or the boys keeping the water inside the bathtub. This valuable tool, shifting my attention along with praising more desirable behaviors, helped interactions feel more peaceful.
And then like so many tools – a bigger, better version came out – descriptive language. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor from Stanford, set out to study how people foster success and cope with failure. Her research led to her theory and book, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success. Dweck states, A “growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”
I found Dweck’s book fascinating. I wanted my boys to believe in themselves. I hoped they would develop a growth mindset, resilience, and confidence. I started using descriptive language with my boys and shifted from giving praise that evaluated the results (great job, you are smart) to offering encouragement that focused on their effort (you really worked hard until the job was done!) According to Dweck, parents can encourage a growth mindset by describing effort and process rather than praising ability and accomplishment. This helps parents “teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning … to build and repair their own confidence.”
The more I practiced using descriptive language, the more natural it felt. When Andrew showed me his math worksheets, instead of saying, “Good job! You are great at math!” I learned to encourage his effort by saying, “Multiplying double digit numbers can be confusing. You really focused on that homework.” When Brian showed me his picture, rather than exclaiming, “What a beautiful drawing! I love it!” I said, “Wow! A colorful dragon with lots of teeth! You love making dragons.” When driving Christian home from his t-ball game, instead of commenting, “Great job! You are an awesome player!” I tried, “You listened to you coach and kept your eye on the ball!”
Use descriptive language is one of ten tools we share in our book, Real-Time Parenting. It is a tool to connect with the child in front of you, in real-time moments, and shine a light on what you see without analyzing, evaluating, or correcting. It is a tool to encourage potential in your children and deepen their confidence. I invite you to explore the many benefits of this one simple (though not easy) tool.
Descriptive language encourages resilience. As we know from Dweck’s research, we can foster motivation and help kids reach their potential by describing their process. We can also help them cope with failure. When kids get the message that their abilities are not fixed, but instead can develop and grow, they are better able to bounce from failure. They get the message that they are learning and can always improve. They begin to say to themselves, “I can try this another way.” Or “I haven’t figured it out yet, I am still learning about this.”
Descriptive language builds inner strength. When we automatically praise kids, we give them a message of judgment. When things go well and we praise them with comments like, “Good job! You are so smart! You are awesome!” what might they think when things don’t go well? Does it mean they are not smart? They are not awesome? And if we are using praise to focus on our kids’ traits and abilities, are we inadvertently encouraging them to look to others for affirmation? Replacing global praise with descriptive language helps kids develop a stronger sense of themselves. Rather than looking to adults or others for affirmation, children hear descriptive words and bring the experience inward to self-affirm their experience. When we say, “All the clothes are in the hamper and the books are on the shelf,” our child says to himself, “I did a good job cleaning my room.” He builds his confidence from within.
Descriptive language fosters mindfulness. When parents practice using descriptive language, they are also practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is often defined as being aware in the present moment without judgment. Descriptive language is doing exactly this – bringing attention to the present moment and describing what you see without evaluating the situation. Being present to the moment helps us stay calm and connected. Another way to think of this is say what you see. Sometimes what we see may be disappointing – shoes scattered throughout the living room or dirty dishes on the counter. We can use descriptive language in these instances as well, to bring awareness to the present moment without judgment (and without shame or belittling). “I see shoes all over the living room. They belong by the front door.” Or “I see dishes on the counter. It is frustrating to walk into a dirty kitchen.” Sometimes this is all a child needs to remind them to take action.
We encourage you to experiment with descriptive language. Note perseverance and hard work over talent and performance. This can help infer the positive trait without evaluating it. Notice when it is easier to use this tool and when you struggle with it. Observe your child’s reaction when you simply say what you see. As Dweck reminds us, “focus on the processes they used – their strategies, effort, or choices.” Practice using this valuable tool to offer encouragement or feedback and to encourage a growth mindset. Let us know how it goes! Comment here and join our Facebook group, True Parent Coaching.