Encouraging your child to succeed – The do’s and don’ts

6 min read   •   September 3, 2020
Lorian Phillips – Clinical Psychologist

Raising children and having them at school can undoubtedly bring up our own feelings about when we were at school, what school meant for us, and how we dealt with our experiences of success and failure.

The most important gift we can give our children is a sense of self-worth and esteem, as that provides the foundation for everything in their lives going forward. It affects how they cope with relationships, how they perform in different areas of life, and their general attitude and resilience.

Talking about success in a healthy way

How we, as parents, speak about our children’s performance and behaviour is crucial. It is vital that, as parents, we are aware of our own views of what construes success and failure and how we express these views to our children, inadvertently or not.

If success is narrowly defined as getting A’s in every subject, being the best sportsperson or the most popular child in school, we are setting up our children to feel bad about themselves, especially if they are not that person.

We need to talk about success as encompassing a range of different skills and characteristics such as:

  • being friendly,
  • well rounded,
  • curious,
  • interested in learning new things,
  • being proactive, etc.

By focusing on these different skills, our children will never get the feeling that they are successful only if they are achieving academically.

Knowing who our children are and being realistic about that is the first step. If my child tends to be poorly coordinated, emphasising sporting ability as successful is unkind and unfair; if my child has difficulty with maths, emphasising that as extremely important is again unkind and will only damage their self-esteem and sense of worth. Comparing your child to others as a motivational technique is, again, damaging and cruel.

The relationship between mindset and success

Success usually comes from a well-grounded sense of self, based on a realistic acceptance of who we are – our strengths and weaknesses. One of the best ways to encourage our children to succeed is to encourage effort. Often, as parents, we look at the child’s end result and base our response on that. We need to show them that effort counts and that with effort, difficult as it may be, changes can take place. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, wrote an excellent book called ‘Mindset’, and she talks about two different mindsets – a growth mindset and a fixed one:

  • A fixed mindset refers to a person believing their abilities – be it intelligence, sports talent etc. – are fixed and cannot be changed or improved upon, and the converse applies – if they are not good at something, e.g. maths, it will always be that way.
  • A growth mindset refers to people who believe that with effort and practice, they can improve and change – so this is really the mindset we want to encourage in our children.

If we praise effort and the fact that they tried and, with continued effort, they can make a difference in their skills and lives, this is so much more empowering for them. This creates self-belief and internal motivation to continue, as opposed to having to be motivated externally via parental or other reinforcement.

Also read: Five tips on how to motivate your teen during lockdown

The importance of praise

Tied into this is the importance of praise. It is the most underrated form of reinforcement, and yet, it has such a positive impact in acknowledging our kids’ efforts and on their self-esteem. However, praise must be genuine and is more effective when we focus specifically on the behaviour we are trying to encourage.

Giving general affirmations like “Oh wow, well done” is lovely, but not as effective as “I love the way you started on your homework without me nagging”, or “I was so impressed by the hard work you put into your art project”. In these attempts, you are encouraging effort, because, as I like to say, the only failure is in not trying and not giving of oneself.

Navigating failure

One of the best definitions of failure that I have come across is ‘First Attempt In Learning’. Therefore, when our children come to us discouraged by their performance in something, it’s essential to use this acronym to highlight that there are many more attempts available – this is not the finishing line.

Also read: The importance of practice in your learning journey

Children can be very hard on themselves and may quickly start to define themselves as failures when they have not been successful at something. They will sometimes say “I’m a failure, I’m useless at this” etc., which is heartbreaking to hear. Instead of trying to persuade them of why they are not, the old adage of ‘criticise the behaviour, not the child’ comes in here – explain to the child that they may be disappointed by their result, but that refers to an incident, not who they are as a person.

A bad result does not equal failure as a person but may show the need for more effort, input, etc. for that particular task. Many successful people today will talk about their experience of not getting it right the first time as being their greatest learning opportunity as it created perseverance, determination, and focus.

Kentucky Fried Chicken is a brilliant example of this as Colonel Sanders’s recipe was rejected 10009 times! Teaching our children to look at difficulties – be they work, socially, etc. – as opportunities instead of threats, and relating our own experiences of overcoming adversity proactively, often helps our children to feel understood. They then know that there are always options available.

Also read: Helpful tips for managing your child’s academic anxiety

Healthy encouragement

Healthy encouragement sometimes involves motivating our kids by reminding them of what they are good at, and occasionally gently nudging them to get going when they don’t feel like doing the task at hand.

Ultimately, we want our children to feel competent and confident in whatever they are trying, and if it is not their skill set, to be able to assess it realistically, be able to laugh at themselves, and keep their inner self-trust intact. That is what will help them to ‘succeed’, and our attitude towards this, and the way we, as parents, convey it, plays an enormous part.