Growing up, I wasn’t the smartest kid in class or the fastest girl on the track field. I didn’t excel at much and rarely won first place in contests and races. But if there’s one thing I was good at, it was my drive and determination to get to the finish line, even if I was the last one to get there. This was mostly because my parents never uttered the words “nice try.”
Instead, it was always “try again.”
Both of my parents were immigrants who came to this country during the Nixon era, and for them, failure was simply not an option. The words they often repeated to me were that I should know how lucky I am to be born in a country where every door is open. The honorable mention ribbons I got at my swim meets were never praised. Showing up didn’t count for anything. A C grade on my report card might as well have been an F.
And as harsh as it sounds, I’ve applied this same mentality to my own parenting methods with my two young children. You do it, and you do it good.
Recently, my second-grader tried out for the lacrosse team at school. Her first time on the field was a disaster. It was cold, her mouthguard didn’t fit correctly, and she was uncomfortable and miserable. During half-time, she came to me on the sidelines with tears in her eyes. She wanted to throw in the towel and go home.
Now, at that moment I knew I had two options: give her a nice big hug (like any mama would do), take her home, make her hot chocolate, and praise her efforts for just showing up. That, or I could give her a nice big hug and tell her we’re not going anywhere until her practice is done.
She went back out there, albeit upset and probably full of hate for me, but she got the job done. The next week I bought her a better mouthguard, the weather was warmer, and she hustled on the field like there was no tomorrow.
And now several weeks later, she’s getting better and better at it and in fact, is beginning to love the sport more and more.
If I had let her quit during her first try-out practice, that would have given her the notion to think it’s okay to walk away when the going gets tough. But life’s not like that. And we shouldn’t be teaching our children that just showing up to the game is good enough, let alone praising them for it, too.
New York Times blogger Kelli Dell’Antonia agrees. In her column, “Nice Try! Is Not Enough,” she explains that praising children for effort rather than the ability to stick to their work longer teaches them that putting in an effort should be enough to earn them the results they desire, no matter how little they produce. She writes:
“Just as effort alone can’t deliver results, praising effort isn’t enough to help a child develop a love for the challenge of learning. Both parents and teachers should follow that ‘great effort’ message with something more.”
Dr. Dweck, whose book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success adds that we’ve made a huge mistake of giving everyone trophies just for being a part of the team. Parents and teachers who encourage children to use their strategies and skills to produce result are already ahead of the game.
“I worry that kids aren’t being taught to dream big any more,” says Dr. Dweck. “It’s so grade-focused. I feel like parents should be focusing on what contribution children can make. What’s the purpose of growing up and having an education and developing skills? What kind of impact are you going to have on the world?”
So in other words, “nice try” sounds better when it’s replaced with “try again.”More On