talented kids

Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Children They’re Extremely Talented

Is your daughter the brightest math student in her class? Do your son’s piano skills outpace everyone in his peer group? If so, you’re likely already thinking about how fostering your child’s natural talent could lead to great accomplishments and happiness. But if future success is in store, one of the best ways to set your child up for it is to actually take the focus off their innate abilities, and shift your attention to their efforts instead.

It’s natural for us as parents to want to praise our children for their strengths. For many of us who grew up in the era of “children should be seen and not heard,” we now actively work to cultivate confidence, self-esteem, and independence in our children. But by continuously praising kids for their abilities, we may be getting in the way of them actually developing those very qualities.

Let’s take a look at the science of motivation and achievement to understand how our praise can affect our children.

Praise for Ability vs. Praise for Effort

Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Carol Dweck is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Her groundbreaking work has shown that the psychology of growth and development is a more complex terrain than popularly believed.

In the late 90s, Dweck and her colleague Claudia Mueller published their findings from a study they did on almost 400 schoolchildren in New York. The students were given a series of tests ranging in difficulty from moderate to challenging. Some students were praised for their ability and scores on the tests, whereas others were commended for their effort. Those who were praised for their scores showed a greater fear of failure going forward as they attempted more challenging tests. The praise they had been given created an internal expectation of continued success. This expectation made the students wary of learning and taking the more challenging problems home to work on.

In contrast, the students who were commended on their efforts showed a greater resilience in the face of failure, as well as a hunger for further learning opportunities. Being praised for their efforts taught them that they are rewarded for the act of learning itself, rather than the outcome of their efforts. This made them feel more confident and capable of taking on the more challenging tests, as well as inspired to continue practicing their skills.

The Effect of Praise on the Mindset

The result of these findings is shaped largely by the human tendency to form a particular mindset from which we then operate. This mindset becomes like a lens through which we understand ourselves, our capabilities, and our interactions with the world. Though it is possible to shift various aspects of our mindset as adults, it is much more difficult to alter them once we have passed the early developmental stages. Because of this, helping your child form a healthy growth-oriented mindset from the start is one of the best things you can do for their development.

A growth mindset is formed when children are made to feel proud of the effort they put into learning something new, which intrinsically links the experience of growth with positive affirmation. This means that even when growth is uncomfortable and riddled with trial and error, as growth usually is, your child will still think of it as a noble and overall pleasant experience. Having positive associations with growth will encourage them to take action more consistently rather than remaining paralyzed by fear. This aids in the development of good habit formation, discipline, and innovative exploration.

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. When we focus on a child’s natural talents we encourage them to split the world into two categories — those things which they are good at, and those they are not. In this way, they form a fixed mindset which prevents them from believing that it’s possible to learn and excel at a skill which falls outside their natural abilities.

Praise, Confidence, and Belonging

When we praise children for the abilities that come easily to them, we unintentionally encourage them to pursue only that which they’re already good at. As Dweck says, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” This limits our children’s confidence in themselves, and keeps them from feeling like they belong with others.

Even if your child seems to be fitting in with his or her peer group, the feeling of belonging may still be an issue. In her research on shame and vulnerability, author Brene Brown explains that there is a marked difference between fitting in and belonging. In essence, fitting in is a cheap and unfulfilling version of belonging. In order to fit in, we adjust how we present ourselves in order to fit in with what we think others expect of us. We hide our real selves.

To transition from merely fitting in, to actually belonging, we must feel that it is safe to show up just as we are, shortcomings, failures, and all. When children are praised for the process of learning, we give them permission to fail, and teach them to celebrate failure as part of the process. Through this, we demonstrate to them that showing up as their full selves is not only appropriate, but is actually good. This is integral training for your child, as they learn how to have healthy and vulnerable relationships. Not only does this set children up for success in the workplace, but also in their social lives.

There are many reasons why commending your children on their efforts is a better choice than simply praising their natural abilities. It might feel like a difficult habit to form at first, but begin simply and see if you notice a difference. Once you do, your child’s increased confidence and interest in trying new things will be its own motivation to regularly practice this parenting technique.


Peter Mueller

View posts by Peter Mueller
Peter Mueller, Founder at Father's Rights Law Center and FathersRights.com. Mr. Mueller has been practicing law for 39 years and is licensed in California and Illinois. Graduating with honors from Loyola Law School in 1972, he was selected to associate with Chicago's leading corporate firm and was also invited to become a Visiting Professor of Corporate Law at Loyola Law, where he had held the position as Assistant Dean of the Business School during his law studies. At Loyola Law he taught upper class law students the core courses in business law while he worked for General Motors, American Oil Company, The Tribune Company, and the Catholic Bishop at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top