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Mr. Dad: Praise son’s effort, not his potential

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have become very concerned about our 11-year old son. He’s a perpetual underachiever in almost everything, from school to the ball field.

We know that he can do better – he’s smart as a whip! How can we encourage him to do better?

A: We all want our kids to get good grades, have lots of friends, and do great things in life. But before your child can accomplish those goals – or any others – he has to answer two questions.

First, “Is this goal actually worth achieving?” Second, “Am I capable of achieving it?”

If the answer to either (or both) is “no,” chances of success are pretty slim, whether in school or the real world.

Be honest. Could you and your wife be jumping in to help your son before he truly needs it? If so, you’re sending the message that even though you say you think he’s smart, you don’t actually believe it. You’re acting with the best of intentions. But you need to be aware that you may be doing more harm than good.

Now, back to your comment that your son is “smart as a whip.” We live in an age where our kids have grown up being told how talented and smart and beautiful they are. An age when, in the name of building our children’s self-esteem, everyone who plays gets a trophy. That’s a huge problem.

In one of my favorite studies, researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck had more than 100 fifth-graders do a variety of tasks. Afterward, the kids were told – regardless of how well they actually did – “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got a great score.”

In addition, some of the kids were praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at these problems.” Others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked hard at these problems.”

Later, the kids were given another series of problems, some of which were way too hard for them. The researchers asked the kids to explain why they’d done so poorly. The “smart” group attributed their poor scores on a lack of intelligence. The “hardworking” group, however, put the blame on lack of effort.

A while later, all the kids were given a choice of the kind of problems they wanted to work on. The “smart” kids shied away from challenges and stuck with tasks that were easy for them. The “hardworking” kids asked for harder problems and were more interested in learning and challenging themselves than in comparing scores.

The bottom line is that by telling your son how smart he is or how much potential he has, you – and his teachers and coaches – are also telling him that his performance is a reflection of his intelligence.

As a result, he may have come to see himself as stupid. That, of course, could affect his performance. So instead of looking for ways to encourage him to do better, encourage him to work harder – and praise him when he does.

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