“All the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules.”

“All the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules.”

This is the third post in a not-quite series about nurturing my kids’ talents and encouraging their interests. First we talked about how nurturing creativity sometimes looks like a big mess. Next I shared the mantra that keeps me from freaking out. 

I’ve been geeking out on deliberate practice lately, a field that has dizzying implications for how I parent, coach, and encourage my kids. All of the authors emphasized the importance of nurturing kids’ interests (while questioning whether there was such a thing as natural talent), and doing it right, because it’s alarmingly easy for these attempts at encouragement to have the opposite effect.

Daniel Coyle cut this advice down to just a few lines in The Talent Code:

“Carol Dweck, the psychologist who studies motivation, likes to say that all the world’s parenting advice can be distilled to two simple rules: pay attention to what your children are fascinated by, and praise them for their effort.

To which I would add, tell them how the myelin mechanism works.”

This sounds so doable. I can–and do–pay attention to what fascinates my kids. (This is one of the most interesting parts of parenting, to see what captures my children’s attention. Agree?)

Praising them for their effort sounds deceptively simple. Praise is a tricky thing: Dweck’s work has demonstrated how praising children for a particular trait (for example, being smart) often backfires, causing the child to lose interest and put in less effort at whatever they’re doing. It’s crucial to offer praise for replicable actions instead, like working diligently, or not giving up. (This applies to all ages, not just kids.)

Practice Perfect also addresses the importance of differentiating between acknowledgement and praise. You acknowledge when your child meets expectations (for example, for making their bed) but you praise when they go above and beyond (like not losing their cool when their sibling was bating them).

And what’s this stuff about myelin? It’s a substance that deliberate practice builds in our brains. Kids need to know that the brain grows when it’s challenged. My kids need to understand that it’s okay when things are hard, because the best way to get better at anything is to work through the hard stuff. (I’m thinking about fractions right now.)

I do these things imperfectly, I’m sure, but I think I’m on the right track. I hope so.

What you were fascinated by as a kid? What are the little people in your life fascinated by? What ways have you found to encourage (and praise) their interests?

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20 comments

  1. ed cyzewski says:

    As our little guy continues to grow and we haven’t yet found a way to slow that process down, I’ve been tuned in to way more parenting advice these days. All of this rings true to me. I was really into writing as early as 12, but I was also into video games, and I wonder how things would have been a little different if my parents had limited my video game time more.

    As for my son Ethan, he’s just over a year old, but he spends a good deal of time pointing at lights, so we’ll be working on nurturing that interest. Ha!

    • Anne says:

      I feel half-enlightened, half-terrified about your video game comment. We don’t have a system and my kids don’t really play it elsewhere, but they definitely have screen time when they might be putting their time to better use reading (or writing, or building, or spinning in circles in the backyard).

  2. Jillian Kay says:

    Yes, seeing what fascinates a child is very much one of my favorite parts of parenthood — mostly because it seems to come out of no where & is normally not what I would expect.

  3. Bronwyn Lea says:

    My 3 year old is FASCINATED by how the body works. Thanks to your post, I am going to keep praising his interest in it, and now I’m also going to tell him that how brain grows when it is challenged… Perhaps his interest in physiology can be used to spur him on in the areas he finds less fascinating? Thanks for an encouraging post!

  4. Karlyne says:

    I homeschooled my practically perfect daughters, but other than teaching them to read, I didn’t teach much at all. I am not a natural teacher, and when subjects showed up on their interest radars, I just made sure they had access to them, whether through books or classes or field trips or whatever I could find. They had enthusiasms for ballet (I had never attended one until I took my toddler daughter), for classical music (I thought music without words would be boring), and reading (whew, finally one they inherited from me!). Of course, now I love dance and classical music, but that’s beside the point. My point is that I always wanted to be a facilitator and not just a teacher. I wanted them to find their own blissful passions and pursue them, not just mold them into what I wanted them to be.

    By giving them deliberate focus to work on, I found that they did indeed need very little prompting to … succeed. By praising them specifically for their efforts, they learned to trust that I would always tell them the truth and so could venture a bit further than maybe they thought they could. Instead of saying, “You’re a beautiful dancer”, I would look for specific things to praise: “Your arabesques are higher, and your foot was lovely”.

    As an illustration of why generic praise doesn’t work, I’ll share this one with you. We had a friend who received an award as a third-grader. The “E” for effort award! You’ve tried harder! Hooray! But, his reaction? “Sheez, everybody gets one of those.”
    Kids know when they’re being played and being condescended to and they don’t like it anymore than we do!

    I think we should just keep geeking out on being deliberate!

  5. Ana says:

    This is great advice…my older son is fascinated with anything involving food—the growing, preparing, and consuming thereof (yes, he’s still a very picky eater, but he likes helping to cook things he has no intention of letting past his lips). Thankfully that’s an easy one to nurture in our house. I try hard to not lapse into the lazy praise (“You’re so fast! You’re so good at this!”) and go with the specific, growth-enhancing style “I like how you tried to xyz”, but its hard to remember for me!

  6. Rebecca says:

    My boys were fascinated by science as little ones, especially if it made a mess or an explosion was involved. Now in high school they’re building and competing nationally with robots the size of my dining room table that cost more than my car. They both attribute their interests (computer programming and engineering, respectively) to Legos and especially the Lego NXT set we got them one Christmas in grade school. What they don’t see is the hours and hours of work that have gone into giving them a rock solid base in maths and writing/research skills. They’ve never loved the “nose to the grindstone” sessions in school that began in 1st grade, but that’s a good part of what’s enabled them to pursue their love of STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics). I don’t for a moment discount the hours of Lego and NXT play, but that’s only about half the picture.
    BTW, loved the distinction between acknowledgement and praise. When I think back to the teachers that affected my heart and mind the most, they were the ones that had mastered the art of giving quiet, intense praise only when it was truly earned.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    Carol Dweck is fantastic, isn’t she? I love reading her studies – Mindset is on my to-read list. 🙂

    Working with young kids in music (and remembering very well what it was like to be one!) I’ve seen the benefits of praising efforts over results. It’s interesting – when you do this, the results get better. Kind of like how making a habit goal vs. outcome goal will give you better long-term results (and positive feelings toward the skill you’re building, in my opinion). Oh, and I love the idea of explaining myelin to kids.

    I’ve also found being empathic and understanding to a child’s frustration is one of the best ways to keep them going. I’ve seen the dictator and command style of teaching kids and it tends to rub me the wrong way.

  8. Anne says:

    Thanks so much for reminding me about Mindset! It was on my to-read list at one point–I think I even picked it up from the library once and returned it unread–but it had fallen off my radar.

    Oh, and as far as expressing understanding of a child’s frustration: I think you’re onto something.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I’m always wondering if I’m guiding my girls in the right direction, so this post was really helpful. My 9 year old loves legos, architecture, drawing and anything HGTV. She spends hours every day designing new dream rooms and homes. I’m already researching college architecture and interior design programs!

    I’m not sure what my 5 year old loves yet, though she loves to move! She spends a lot of time just running in circles inside and outside of the house. She also loves practicing her headstands, handstands, and whatever she’s learned recently in dance class.

    When I was a kid I was fascinated by swimming, books, travel, and fashion and beauty magazines. Although I was always encouraged to read, my other interests really weren’t encouraged. I hope I do a better job encouraging my girls!

  10. Stacey says:

    What a great post. I love learning vicariously from you right now- all your reading on practice is so helpful! My oldest is a huge perfectionist and is terrified of things that don’t come easily to her. I can’t wait to talk to her about myelin-seriously 🙂

  11. Karlyne says:

    My oldest daughter was a perfectionist, too, and never wanted to try anything until she was sure she could get it “right”. I think what helped her most was humor; I’d just agree with her that of course she’d never be able to do it. After all, she never figured out how to walk or do double pirouettes; or… wait! yes, she did! Pointing back to past successes and how hard she worked to make them successes reminded her that even when things didn’t come easy, she could still keep at them. She’s a writer of humor (among other things) now, so I guess it worked!

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