I had been told that some types of praise make kids unmotivated, but in moments of being excited for my son about a success, it felt awkward to search for words to express my enthusiasm in a way that felt both genuine and was “correct.”

But then, when my son was in a phase of being unmotivated to try new activities, I happened to pick up Mindset by Carol Dweck and suddenly the light flashed on. I finally saw how my praise was stripping him of his motivation and his tenacity for finishing challenging projects. Dweck describes the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

The Fixed Mindset
A child with a fixed mindset believes that he has certain talents or traits, or he doesn’t (for example, he is smart, athletic, good at soccer, a talented piano player, or he isn’t). The trait or talent is fixed and if he has it, he believes it will be effortless or easy to learn and gain competency in the associated skills. He further deduces that having to make a substantial effort means that he’s not capable or is deficient in that talent. Thus, he becomes very selective about what he’ll do or try, because doing something new or that he’s not good at will be a sure way to fail and feel inadequate.

We create a fixed mindset in our children whenever we give any feedback or praise that suggests our child’s accomplishment is good or great, or that they have a specific talent or trait. It was hard for me to believe that I was creating a problem when I exclaimed, “You’re so good at playing the violin!” I felt so happy for him, and was so proud of his accomplishment. I can now see that it was a value judgment about his ability, and also a statement about what he is or isn’t.

Making a value statement about his being “good” means there is also a possibility of being “bad.” Even if you’ve never told your child he’s bad at something, his subconscious intelligence registers that possibility, and sets him on alert to make sure he is always ‘good’ at something, even if it means not trying new activities.

When a child with a fixed mindset does try something new, if he isn’t quickly able to perform at a level he’d like, he mistakenly believes that he isn’t good at it or isn’t capable, and he quits. If he’s heard you say, “Wow! You’re so good at hockey!” in the past, he anticipates that when he screeches out his first tune on his new violin which he knows doesn’t sound great, that he’ll be judged as not-so-good—by himself or others—even if you’ve never actually criticized his accomplishment before. Eventually, praise that contributes to a fixed mindset manifests as decreased intrinsic motivation in our children. Children do all of this subconsciously, thus it doesn’t help to explain the above to your child; it’s most helpful to cultivate a growth mindset.

The Growth Mindset
A child with a growth mindset believes that regardless of any natural talent, all our abilities and skills are a result of effort and are learned. There’s always an opportunity to learn and grow at something. Thus, if she tries a new activity and finds she can’t perform at the level she’d hoped, it’s because she just hasn’t accomplished that level of learning, yet. A child with a growth mindset is much more willing to try new activities, because she anticipates possibly doing poorly at the beginning and knows it isn’t a reflection of her ability or worth. She also has more tenacity and grit to put in effort over time, because she believes that becoming competent at the skill is potentially within her reach. Growth and learning are the result of effort, not necessarily only natural gifts or a result of being good or bad at something.

We create a growth mindset when:
• We say things that focus on the effort our child has made that led to his accomplishment, and avoid “good” and “bad” comments. For instance, “Wow! You’ve been practicing that song every day for a week now, and your efforts have paid off! I noticed that you played it smoothly right through without pausing. Congratulations!”

• We genuinely share our joy and celebrate our children’s accomplishments with them by telling them how we feel, or sharing something we noticed or liked about their creation. For example, “I know you really wanted to make the soccer team. I’m so happy for you! Congratulations!” Or, “I notice you used lots of this teal blue color in your picture, and I really love how it looks next to the green.”

Transforming the Fixed Mindset
If you’ve unknowingly been creating a fixed mindset in your child, using the above strategies can transform it. I’ve also found it helpful to share my own experiences. We often create a fixed mindset in our kids when we have one ourselves. Sharing my own vulnerability and struggles has been far more successful than saying “You should…” or trying to talk my son into trying something new. For instance, I’ve shared with him that I used to believe I couldn’t write because when I was younger, I was scared to try and thought I wasn’t good at it. I also worried about being laughed at or judged. I thought some people could just naturally write, and I didn’t discover until I was an adult that I just needed the courage to try and the self-discipline to practice. Now I love it.

Using strategies for creating growth mindset and sharing our own stories, without the intention of convincing your children, can eventually lead to them having more willingness to try new activities and more grit to keep going when it’s tough—and ultimately feeling the gratification that comes with mastering skills and creating what they love.

Colleen Adrian is a writer, speaker and parent educator. Visit colleenadrian.com