Our praise and their pride

Praise is a powerful instrument, especially when delivered from parents to their kids. Although some teens may go to great lengths to appear otherwise, they thrive on parent approval. Parental praise has byproducts, as teens are likely to seek out opportunities to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

There’s no itemized list of good and bad praises, and let’s not inject unnecessary worry or strategy into parental expressions of admiration towards their kids. But there are two particular types of praise that can actually have the opposite of their intended effect:

1. Praising intelligence
“You’re so smart” certainly has a nice ring to it—who wouldn’t want to hear that? But in addition to praising something the student had virtually nothing to do with (intelligent kids should be praising their parents for passing on good genes), the bigger issue is that research has shown that praising kids for innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.

When an intellectual challenge eventually presents itself, students who identify as intelligent can panic. This is one of the reasons so many students who attend highly selective colleges suffer from impostor syndrome on arrival. It’s a rude awakening to find out on day one that your former moniker as “the smartest kid in class” no longer applies.

A few alternatives: Praise their curiosity, effort, or willingness to take on challenging subjects. Those are repeatable behaviors regardless of how readily the student can understand what’s being presented.

2. Comparative praising
“You scored the most points,” or “You were the best soloist tonight,” or “You got the highest grade in the class!” are praises based on comparison. The message they give your student is that to be praiseworthy, someone else needs to be less praiseworthy. Nobody’s suggesting that we should divide our praise equally among every participant. But your student’s not always going to be the top scorer, performer, or achiever. To set them up for future success, praise the traits that put them in those positions: their hard work, commitment to their goals, willingness to take on challenges, etc.

When in doubt, praise away. If your worst crime as a parent is that you praised often but not perfectly, that’s a pretty great track record. But if we can be mindful about what we’re praising, our kids will be more likely to continue doing those very things that earned our praise and their pride.

Home/school balance

Many professionals struggle with their work/life balance. I’ve never met an adult who said, “I wish that my boss and my job-related stress and my performance at work would play a bigger role in my life at home.”

And yet many kids today are struggling with home/school balance.

Parents, what if your home became the place where kids could be free of:

  • Measurement of performance
  • Comparisons to other kids
  • Judgment based on grades or test scores
  • Suggestions to fix their weaknesses
  • Pressure to succeed by subjective metrics
  • Recurring conversations about college admissions
  • Imposed guilt for mistakes made

Not a home free of expectations or bloated with universal praise. But a place where the love is unconditional, where a student’s performance as a family member is more important than their performance as a college applicant.

How would that change the environment at home? And how might it embolden them to thrive in the environment at school?

Both might improve with a better home/school balance.

Giving kids agency

It’s a difficult balancing act for parents to help their kids develop the skills to be successful while simultaneously letting go enough to allow them to develop the agency to become capable young adults. If you’re a parent struggling with this challenge, give this 40-minute interview with author and former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims a listen. And if you’re unsure whether you’d benefit from the advice, the first minute alone might turn you around.

Regularly ask “why?”

In response to my post last week with data demonstrating why teens need to get more sleep, a parent replied with an earnest and totally reasonable question: How? As she pointed out, getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is a challenge with school, classes, activities, part-time jobs, etc. For a concerned parent who agrees that too many students are taking on too much, and who would very much like to encourage their kids to get more sleep, what exactly can be done about it?

There’s no easy answer here, but I recommend that families start start by asking “why?” when confronted with those choices that are preventing kids from getting more sleep.

Four AP classes—why? Activities filling up all their free time–why? And if the answers are, “Because kids need to get into ‘good’ colleges,” stick with, “Why?” There are hundreds of colleges in this country that will happily admit a kid with B’s, no AP classes, average test scores, and a part-time job after school as their only activity.

These are choices that kids and families make. And one of those choices is to opt in to—or out of—the race for a coveted spot at one of those colleges that denies most of their applicants.

We might say that this is the way it has to be, that kids need to get accepted to the most selective college they can lest they somehow be left behind their more competitive (and sleep-deprived) classmates. But if you meet that assumption with a powerful “why?” you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up. There’s no data to support that kids who go to highly selective colleges are happier or more successful in life. The namebranditus afflicting so many families is a powerful story they’ve been told and now tell themselves. But it’s not a fact-based objective on which you can predicate your high school career.

The truth is that some kids thrive on competition and achievement. They’re internally wired to finish at the top and feel a sense of exhilaration in the chase. But many more do not. I don’t prescribe one way to approach high school. But whatever approach you see—and even endorse—with your student, take the time to regularly ask, “Why?”

Our kids need more sleep

From Challenge Success’s regular newsletter, which arrived in my inbox this week:

“Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that not getting enough sleep is associated with certain health risks and that more than ⅔ of U.S. high school students report less than 8 hours of sleep during school nights. When teens consistently get the right amount of sleep, they feel and function better. A lack of adequate sleep is associated with increased risk of physical illnesses, such as obesity and diabetes, injury-related risk behaviors (e.g. risky driving or not wearing a helmet), poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance.”

On praising by comparison

Too often in high school, the praise that kids receive is rooted in comparison.

“You scored in the 97% percentile.”

“You had the most points on the team.”

“Your solo was the best one.”

Comparison isn’t inherently bad, especially when it’s the standard of judging a performance. If you’re on the swim team, your performance in a meet is based on how fast you swim compared to other swimmers.

But even when the comparison is the basis, the praise at home doesn’t need to be that way.

“I know you studied really hard for that test.”

“I’m so happy that you’re really enjoying playing on the team this year.”

“I was so proud. You didn’t seem nervous at all during your solo!”

Naysayers may claim that we need to get kids prepared for the cold, hard, real world where winners get ahead. But that’s not rooted in fact for most industries–or in life. Most successful people have a string of failures on their unspoken resume entirely because they were willing to take on uncertain challenges. And your personal life is rarely rooted in competition (there’s a reason most wedding vows don’t include a promise to be a winner).

Parents, the next time you want to express your pride to your student, look for a way that doesn’t rely on a comparison to others. Home should always be a place that cares more about who you are and less about where you placed.

A different (teen) management model?

Parents, have you ever had a boss who was a micromanager, someone who needed to be kept informed of or outright involved with every step of your work?

If so, were you thankful for their style of constant oversight and for their reluctance to trust you? Did it leave you happier and more engaged? And perhaps most importantly, were you able to sustainably produce your best work?

There’s a reason I have only ever heard people use the world “micromanager” pejoratively—it doesn’t lead to better outcomes or to happier employees.

Now, what type of management style are you using with your teen?

Are you constantly checking their grades online and intervening at the slightest sign of a dip? Are you involved with everything from selecting activities to communicating with teachers to choosing appropriate colleges? Are you spending more time as a manager of their lives than you are as a parent to the human you’re raising?

Some parents may quibble with the comparison and point out that responsibilities as a parent to a child are different from those as a manager to an employee. I couldn’t agree more.

And that’s exactly why if you’re micromanaging your teen, it might be time to consider a different model, one that embraces your role as their parent and diminishes your role as their manager.

Which parenting plan are you embracing?

In just a one-minute video, Challenge Success co-founder Madeline Levine shares her recommendation that parents embrace the “30-year parenting plan” over the “CEO model.” The former aims to raise a future 30-year-old who’s happy, caring, engaged, etc. The latter focuses on last quarter’s numbers.