Updated: Jan 5, 2021
When she was starting secondary school, my sister wrote a beautiful story. It was full of detail and emotion in an aboriginal community, a coming-of-age-tale written by someone who hadn’t yet come of age. She’d always done well at English, but that story showed a real gift, and it won a prize at school. We all made a big fuss and encouraged her to write more and… she didn’t. Despite us telling her how well she’d done and how talented she was, my sister never wrote very much after that. At the time, I was baffled. Why wouldn’t she want to do something she was clearly so good at? It wasn’t until years later I heard a theory that could describe what had happened.
It seems such an obvious motivator to say “Well done! You’re so good at maths!” or “I love your stories!” But in fact, that can have the opposite of the intended effect – reducing your child’s motivation and making them less creative. If you praise your child for their skill at a subject in general, then they’ll want to live up to that compliment. It raises expectations. In a roundabout way, you’ve told them that that task is easy for them, so if they do well that was expected. But if they fail, or only do moderately well, they’re below expectations. They’ve done poorly.
The motivations are all negative – there’s little to gain, but they have a reputation to lose. As a result, children may try to avoid being tested. They might dodge challenges in case they fail, and especially avoid difficult questions. Unfortunately, those are also where they are most likely to learn something new. Now they won’t attempt problems in their best subject when they are supposed to be on a virtuous circle of enjoying and practising and gaining more skill.
Another downside of your child considering themselves good at a subject is getting frustrated when they don’t understand a new topic. They might view their struggle as evidence their reputation isn’t justified. They see this question as an attack on their identity, and so reject the question. That’s the worst outcome because it’s on those tough questions they are most likely to learn.
So it’s bizarre, but don’t praise them by saying “You’re good at subject X”. They will spot it for themselves if they are doing well. Unavoidably, if they succeed, they will raise their expectations and be disappointed if they fail to meet them. That will happen naturally. There's no need to help it on the way.
Instead, praise individual pieces of work. "You did well at *that* exercise," "I loved *that* story." If they want to receive more of that recognition, then they'd better write another story. It's a subtle change but makes a big difference. And applauding effort is always safe. Working harder is always positive and rewarding that is a good thing. I’ve found myself correcting my kids, who can be comically immodest:
D: Finished. I’m so clever!
Me: You worked really hard at that, well done.
So no, they’re not good at maths. But sometimes they’ve worked hard and done well.