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We’ve talked before here about the dangers of promoting a trait orientation in children. A trait orientation or trait mindset is a problem when children believe they naturally are unable to learn something and so quit trying. The child who says, “I’m no good at math,” or “I’m just clumsy, or “I’m hyper” has adopted an excuse for his low grades, his poor showing in soccer, or his lack of self-control. If he’s “just not good at” something, there’s no point in trying.

A trait orientation is obviously a barrier to learning. It causes a child to give up too soon, assuming he tries at all. Teachers and parents should do everything they can to avoid encouraging a trait orientation in children. It doesn’t make sense to hand a child an excuse for not even bothering to try to do well.

But… what if we encourage a trait mindset for positive qualities? Can the problems a trait mindset creates actually support good character? Researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler found the answer is “yes.”

In an interesting experiment conducted many years ago, Grusec and Redler praised 7- and 8-year-old children for either generous behavior or for having a generous character. They set up a game in which children could win marbles and then could “donate” some to “poor children.” They then told half of the children, “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” This praise focused on the action the children took. The other half of the group were told, “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” This praise focused on a trait the children demonstrated; it was about who the children were, as people, not what they did.

A few weeks later, the same children were given other opportunities to share. The children who were praised for who they were, as people, were more likely to share and share more than the children who were praised for what they did.

The notion that attaching a positive label to children encourages positive behavior has been confirmed recently in a study by Christopher Bryan.  Bryan found that asking children “to be a helper” was much more likely – by 22% to 29% – than asking them simply to help. He also found that telling children not to cheat was less effective in preventing cheating that telling them, “Don’t be a cheater.” In fact, “Don’t be a cheater” cut cheating in half. Bryan puts it this way: nouns are more effective than verbs.

We know this is true. This is exactly why we’ve tried so hard to avoid telling a child she’s a poor speller, or messy, or disorganized. We know how powerful these negative labels can be. But most of us – myself included – haven’t realized the same power can attach to positive labels.

So helping your child become more generous, more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more grateful, a simple first step is to tell your child he is these things. Not just as random statements, of course, but in response to something your child does that can be praised.

Instead of praising the action, try praising your child’s character. See if she responds by showcasing her good character even more.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.