Reconsidering E for Effort

Today’s blog is from Tracy Gilsvik, our multi-talented magazine designer, online marketer, sheep-raiser, book designer, writer and mom to Claire.

In Pre-schoolers Dream of Being Princesses Brittany’s daughter Sophia just wants to be a princess. She wants to be pretty and magical and live in a castle with her sometimes kind and other times evil mother the queen. Usually she dances around singing about gardens and princesses and fairy dust. But lately she’s worried if she’s pretty enough, if her clothes are right, if she’s fat. Pre-schoolers Dream of Being Princesses is heart-breaking. And her mother, blogger of Mommy Words, states so well the angst a parent feels when hearing her/his amazing daughter doubts herself.

If you read the comments from readers you’ll see one that says, “Don’t tell her she’s pretty, tell her she’s smart!” My gut reaction to that was Yes!

My own daughter was complimented at a Christmas party for being pretty. “Wow! Look how you’ve grown,” a family friend said. “And you’re so pretty, too.”

I could tell she liked the compliment. A lot of us would. I think there’s just something reassuring to hear that you measure up. I chuckled while reading The History of Love where Leopold Gursky looks in the mirror each day and hopes he’s attractive. ” . .. even now there are moments when I stand in front of the mirror . . . and believe my beauty is yet to come.” He’s in his seventies. So maybe there’s something innate in wanting to be “pretty” or “handsome” or “princess-like.” The problem is how negative media has latched on to that desire and blown it completely out of proportion to the rest of our lives.

So while my gut reaction to “Don’t tell her she’s pretty, tell her she’s smart,” was in agreement, I realize like so many things, it’s just not that easy. I wish I could tell my daughter that she is all that I see she is—observant, creative, expressive, brilliant, mechanically inclined, thoughtful, well-rounded, strong, . . .  The thing is, she won’t always believe me. Unearned compliments are just annoying pesky things to her. Sometimes they’re even a bit embarrassing.

But praising her for effort is completely different. I noticed this when my daughter was about four years old and wanted to ice skate. I bundled her up, laced up her tiny skates and we hit the ice. She hit the ice literally, over and over again. I didn’t over react to her falls even though I imagined she hurt. She fell some more. But after each fall, she just got up and tried skating again.  I had never seen her put so much effort into anything before and found myself responding to that in a completely sincere way. And she believed me. She knew she was trying; she knew I knew she was trying because she was trying! And she succeeded! She can skate now. (She also wants to invent “The Butt Helmet” for kids learning to skate.)

I think the term “E is for Effort” is from report cards. You could get an E instead of an A,B,C, D or F if you didn’t do well, but a teacher could see you were trying. It seems like a consolation prize like the teacher is saying, “I didn’t have the heart to give you a D or an F.”  But maybe we need to reconsider the E and how we praise kids.

A growing body of research suggests that real confidence may come from real effort not natural skill or intelligence. Praise for “being smart” may be backfiring. In How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise we meet several students who are at the top of the intelligence charts but freeze when confronted with academic challenges that are beyond them. Where as kids who are praised for effort, are up for the challenge of tests two grade levels beyond their expected skills.

So what’s a parent to do? Good question! I can only say to praise kids sincerely. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying your child is smart or pretty. But make sure you’re noticing qualities that will really enhance their life: concentration skills, effort, involvement, passion, excitement, good attitude, openness, honesty or whatever you think is important for them. Maybe little Sophia could be praised for using her imagination to see and make life magical. That’s a pretty good skill to have really.

I believe life has a way of giving us plenty of challenges, but if you think your child could use some, give these a try:

  • Yoga poses for kids—like  warrior pose: builds strength, endurance, and confidence
  • Sports—sports and teamwork are great opportunities for effort and learning
  • Chores—have your child help you complete certain chores
  • Re-arrange bedroom—give them some masking tape to show you where they might move things.
  • New skill—enable them to learn any new skill they want: instrument, creative art, rock climbing . . .
  • Projects—cooking project, book report on any topic, video of a day in your family, family tree

It doesn’t hurt to try praising her for the effort instead of the outcome.  How do you do this?

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  • Lindsey

    Great post! I know sometimes we get into the routine of saying “Good job!” with kids, even when it wasn’t such a good job. It’s important to be intentional with our praise and make it mean something. I like the ideas at the bottom for building skills. Thanks for sharing!

    Lindsey @

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