There's a growing body of evidence that praising children for attributes like intelligence or athletic ability backfires as a means of promoting achievement. Well meant praise can often send a message to a child that certain aspects of their life are fixed ("I'm smart at this, but I'm dumb at that."), as pointed out in an article on the KQED MInd/Shift blog. If a child internalizes the belief that they are either naturally good at something or not, it undermines the determination that is necessary to learn, grow, and eventually master a skill. Thankfully, Stoicism offers a perspective and some exercises that complement these findings so that our own children avoid the pitfalls of such a poor perspective.
What we've shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.
-Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford
Professor Dweck's research shows that praise should be directed at the process of learning, rather than focused on the outcome. Pat your child on the back for engagement with a subject. Encourage their efforts to avoid frustration as they run into, then overcome, obstacles. Remind them that failure is a part of learning and then help them devise new strategies for success. Don't simply proclaim, "you got the right answer, good job" and definitely don't say, "you're such a smart kid" and call it a day.
Historically, Stoicism has frowned on praising people. For instance, here's Epictetus' definition of a person succeeding at Stoicism,
The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense.
Enchiridion Chapter 48
To the ancient Stoics, praise had no utility. In book four of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius put it this way, "Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself... [What] is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed?" Of course, in the Roman court the praises Marcus overheard were not only useless, they were manipulative. Praise was politics, meant to sway people one way or the other. Parental praise, we can hope, is at least well meant but as we've seen, praise of the wrong type can be damaging.
The Praise the Process perspective actually fits easily within the Stoic framework. In book ten of the Meditations, Aurelius makes a rare positive comment concerning praise, "...a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents." The "accidents" Marcus mentions are the misfortunes of life. What is the Emperor willing to praise? A person's ability to make good use of circumstances. He won't congratulate you on your 'natural' intelligence, strength, or beauty, but he'll applaud your wise actions. Wisdom, for Stoics, is not a internal trait of which you have a set amount, it is the manner in which you approach the circumstances of life. Wisdom is the process of living well. It's worth praising that process.
So, outside of praising the process, what specific Stoic exercises can we parents use with our children to build some grit and determination into their perspectives?
Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.
Epictetus' Discourses 3.10.2-3
The above quote supports a Stoic practice called the Evening (or Retrospective) Meditation. Many of us go through this process nightly before bed. I'd like to suggest bringing this meditation to the family dinner table.
The Evening Meditation consists of reviewing three questions; What did I do today? What did I do amiss? What was left undone? The final paragraph of the KQED article says that Professor Dweck, "believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all." As Stoic parents, we can practice this idea and grow in our philosophy while doing so. I suggest that as we gather our family around a meal, where we probably already ask, "what did you do today?" we add the questions, "What did you succeed at and struggle with today?" and "What needs to be done tomorrow?" We can share in the triumphs of our children's day. We can share our own challenges so that our children understand that struggle is to be expected. We can plan together, as a family, our strategies to overcome obstacles big and small. In doing so, we build an understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of learning in our children (and ourselves) and they will be stronger for it.
Praise matters. Children need feedback to help them understand the world around them. Research shows that how we praise others is important. Like the ancient Stoics, we can choose to praise those things that lead to wisdom and, in doing so, we will help our children thrive.