Raising Well-Adjusted, Motivated Children: 3 Reasons to Praise the “Process” not the “Person”


Last weekend marked the midpoint of the spring soccer season in our community. This means we’re just a few weeks away from handing out participation medals to all of the kids on all of the teams, irrespective of whether they worked really hard or exhibited barely any effort at all on the field.

This is silly, of course. As we all know, kids count every goal and chalk up every win or loss on their mental scoreboards, even if we, as parents, refuse to employ actual scoreboards at their games or otherwise judge their performance. Since we’re not fooling our kids, why do we insist on trying to fool ourselves? 

Certainly, our motivations as parents to protect our children in all aspects of their lives are pure. From guarding against a skinned knee to shielding against a bruised ego, we don’t want our kids to experience pain. The question is: Notwithstanding our motivations, are we doing right by our kids when most of us come to realize (through our own personal experience) that unless our kids experience a bit of pain, discomfort, and displeasure, then they’ll never learn, grow, and become inoculated against the often harsh realities of the world.

Accordingly, like most aspects of parenting, trying to raise well-adjusted, motivated children, who become well-adjusted, motivated adults, is a bit of a conundrum. 

Process Praise Versus People Praise

Over the last 50 years, our culture and notions of how to best motivate children has shifted considerably from, for example, the era in which our grandparents were raised, when it was widely believed that “sparing the rod was spoiling the child.” Today, the pendulum has swung almost completely in the other direction, and many are now questioning whether the “self-esteem” movement—the belief that children should almost always, in every circumstance, feel good about themselves—has gone too far. 

So what’s the happy medium? Research suggests that the answer to the question of how to best motivate kids (and adults for that matter) is not black and white. Harsh discipline doesn’t seem to be the answer, nor unqualified praise. The sweet spot, according to the research, involves doling out healthy doses of praise, but at the right time and for the right reason. In fact, the type of “praise” that works best is better categorized as “feedback.”

Numerous studies point to the fact that kids are best motivated, and experience long-term benefits in terms of their abilities to solve problems, deal with setbacks, and get better at multitude skills over time, if they receive “process praise” rather than “people praise.”

In the context of coaching my kids’ soccer teams, an example of “people praise” would be telling my daughter that she’s a “great soccer player” if she scored the game-winning goal (which, of course, is impossible, because we don’t keep score!). Providing her with “process praise,” on the other hand, would be sitting her down and reminding her that she put herself in a position to score the goal because she worked really hard at practice earlier in the week. 

Process praise does not focus on how special she is as a person. It doesn’t zero in on innate traits, like raw intelligence or natural athleticism, that she can’t control. Instead, it celebrates her work ethic and dedication, which are things within her control, so that she learns a micro-lesson about the way the world works. No one is going to give her anything just because she “deserves” it; she’s going to have to work for it. 

This principle can be extrapolated across almost any domain (not “You’re so talented, strong, fast, pretty, smart!” but rather “You studied, worked, trained hard!”). If all a kid hears is person praise, then in the face of a setback, he or she will likely think, “Well, maybe I wasn’t that smart after all. I guess I just can’t learn to do algebra,” rather than asking more questions and figuring out a new way to study. In sum, process praise celebrates kids for effort and the processes they use to learn and grow. 

There are three reasons, backed by scientific and academic research, why process praise is important.

1. It Cultivates a “Growth Mindset”

Process praise cultivates what academic and author Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” According to Dweck, people with a growth mindset “believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” In her book, Nurture Shock, Dweck discusses how and why the manner in which we speak to our kids matters greatly, and how small nuances in language make a big difference in how they see themselves and those around them.

To illustrate her point, Dweck discussed a study that compared kids who received person praise versus those who received process praise after completing an easy math puzzle. The children were then given the opportunity to choose a second puzzle - either a hard one or an easy one. Researchers found that kids who were praised for being smart (person praise) opted for the easy puzzle. Kids who were praised for being good workers (process praise) selected the harder puzzle 90% of the time.

Dweck explained: “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” In other words, they learn to conform rather than chasing what lights them up inside.

2. It Helps Foster Intrinsic Motivation

One of the great gifts we can provide to kids is to teach them to become intrinsically motivated adults. Intrinsic motivation is marked by an internal desire to do something for its own sake - for example, someone’s personal enjoyment of an activity, or their desire to learn a skill because they’re eager to learn. Someone who is intrinsically motivated doesn’t need a coach or a parent standing over their shoulder either praising or shouting at them in order to perform at high levels. 

How a child is praised can significantly impact - positively or negatively - a child’s ability to draw upon intrinsic motivation. Research has shown that process praise that is "sincere," "promotes autonomy," and "conveys attainable standards" promotes intrinsic motivation in children. But on the other hand, external rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation if they're given out too loosely. When children receive too much praise for completing minimal work or single tasks, for example, their intrinsic motivation decreases. 

3.  It Helps Prioritize Meaning Over Happiness

Meaning and happiness are not the same thing. People who lead meaningful lives tend to be happy, but these two qualities do not always correlate. For example, studies have shown that adults with children are less happy than those who are childless, but most derive a great deal of meaning from raising their kids. Raising kids is hard - it’s not always fun but it can be highly satisfying. The corollary to this is that lying on the beach each day without a care in the world may make you happy, but could lead to a life longing for more meaning.

Because process praise can help equip kids with the fortitude, toughness, and a mental toolkit necessary to tackle tough challenges, it can help them to understand that life is about more than just the pursuit of happiness. It’s about the pursuit of happiness in the context of the search for meaning.

As with Most Things in Life, it’s Complicated

The answer to the question of how to raise well-adjusted, motivated kids is: It’s complicated. What is clear from the research is that neither endless praise nor lack thereof is the answer. As with most things in life, putting kids in the best position possible to become well-adjusted, motivated adults requires striking the right balance. Sometimes that means hanging a participation medal around a kid’s neck. Other times it means making kids run a few laps around the field because they’re slacking off.

Most of all it means helping them recognize what they’re passionate about (which may mean they’ll leave the field and never come back) so they don’t have to rely on anyone else to succeed—their growth mindsets, intrinsic motivations, and desires for meaning will be all they need to thrive. Praise kids, but for what they do, not necessarily for who they are.

Heather Harrington