Positive Labels: Why They’re Actually Hurting Your Kids

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While labeling people negatively according to their perceived potential is often inaccurate and can hinder their development, positive labels and praise can also be detrimental. Are the positive labels you’re giving your kids hurting them?

We’ll cover the effects of positive labeling and discuss why your efforts to build children’s self-esteem actually hurt them.

The Dangers of Positive Labels

Parents and teachers typically try to build children’s self-confidence by praising their ability and giving them positive labels, but this can be harmful. Praising their ability sends the message that adults value ability and can determine a child’s ability from his or her performance. This is a fixed mindset. Here’s how it plays out.

Researchers gave early adolescent students ten problems to solve, then praised their performance in two different ways: some students were praised for their ability (“You must be smart at this”; positive label: Genius), while another group was praised for their effort (“It looks like you worked really hard”).

Praising students for their ability and giving them an implicit positive label pushed them into a fixed mindset. When offered another difficult task that they could learn from, they rejected it, not wanting to show any cracks in their talent or positive labels by failing. However, the students who were praised for effort (a growth-minded approach) wanted to take on the new challenge.

Researchers then gave all the students new problems, on which they didn’t do well. The children praised for ability and given positive labels began feeling like failures — they’d been told that their earlier success meant they were smart so now they felt stupid. Their performance steadily declined. In contrast, the students who were praised for effort tried harder and their performance continued to improve. 

What’s more, when asked to write a report on the experience, almost 40 percent of the children praised for their ability lied about their performance. Telling children they were smart and giving them positive labels hurt their performance and turned them into liars

Positive Labels Make Kids Vulnerable to Opinion

Besides dealing with stereotyping, many girls and women struggle with others’ opinions in general. The reason is that when girls are young, adults praise them for being cute or perfect (positive labels), which teaches them to trust others’ opinions of whether they’re good or bad. They carry this trust into adulthood — even women at top universities say other people’s opinions are a good way to know their abilities. 

Often, boys are less susceptible to others’ opinions because adults criticize and scold boys more than girls, and many boys are also accustomed to insulting and calling each other names (slob or idiot). Consequently, boys learn to shrug off the opinions of others.

Tips for Avoiding the Trap of Positive Labels

  • Next time you’re tempted to positively label your kids for their ability (artist, musician, athlete), choose a growth-minded way to praise them that focuses on effort and improvement instead.
  • When you work with women and minorities as a teacher, colleague, or manager, model and teach a growth mindset that with support and effort, anyone can improve.

Positive Labeling Language

When children do something well, most parents and teachers want to encourage them or build their confidence, but often they’re not helping the way they think they are. Here’s how many parents respond — and what their kids hear:

  • “Wow, you learned that fast; you’re really smart.” What the child hears: If you don’t learn fast, it means you’re dumb.
  • “Look how smart you are — you got an A without even studying.” What the child hears: If I have to study, it means I’m not smart.
  • “Look at that artwork — You’re the next Picasso.” What the child hears: If I draw something difficult and fail, they’ll see I’m not really a talented artist. I’d better not take the chance.

These examples of positive labels show that praising children’s intelligence hurts their motivation and performance. Children getting fixed-mindset praise develop resistance to difficult challenges that might show they’re not so smart or talented. If they try and fail, they further lose motivation and confidence. They believe the message that their performance — success or failure — reflects who they are: If success means they’re smart, failure means they’re dumb.

The best way for parents to help their children build confidence is to teach them to welcome challenges, to want to understand mistakes, to enjoy effort, and to continually look for and try new learning strategies.

How to Praise Children the Right Way

The research findings on the de-motivating effects of praise don’t mean praising children is bad and we shouldn’t do it. Children love praise and need adult approval. The key is to avoid praise that judges their intelligence or ability, which implies you’re proud of them for an inherent trait rather than for their effort and improvement. Avoid labels of any kind, negative or positive.

Applying a growth mindset, praise them for what they’ve achieved through good study strategies, practice, and persistence. Show interest in how they succeeded or improved, in their efforts and choices. For instance, you might comment, “You really studied hard and it paid off. I can see how much you improved. Outlining the important points was a good strategy.” Or, “It’s great that you kept trying different ways of solving that math problem until you got it.” This avoids positive labels.

For a student who worked hard and didn’t do so well, a helpful response would be: “Everyone learns differently. Let’s try to find a way that works for you.” (This approach is especially helpful for children with learning disabilities.) Or, “I like your effort. Let’s work on it some more and figure out where you’re having trouble.”

For a student who did something quickly without mistakes, avoid praising speed and perfection, which will get in the way of tackling challenges. It would be more constructive to say something like, “You finished that assignment so quickly that it must have been too easy. Let’s try something else that you can really learn from.” Again, this increases self-esteem while avoiding positive labels.

Sometimes parents use growth-oriented language with their children, but then undercut it by expressing judgments (fixed-mindset statements) about other people, which the kids overhear. For instance, they might remark, “Some have it and some don’t” or “What a lame-brain.” When children hear things like this, they wonder whether those judgments apply to them too. Remember, they’re always listening.

Teachers also can easily fall into the trap of praising children and giving them positive labels in ways that kill motivation. For example, praising great mathematicians as geniuses is a subtle reference to a fixed mindset. It would be better to describe mathematicians as people who developed a passion for math, worked at it, and made big discoveries.

Positive Labels: Why They’re Actually Hurting Your Kids

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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