Only Because You Tried Hard

Complimenting children can be the ultimate parent trap. It’s natural to praise children based on their success and  general cuteness, but that praise can causes them to internalize success as a need for perfection. It’s hard to keep personality based praise at bay, especially when we’re their parents and we love (almost) everything about their cute little faces.

Giving effort based praise is one of the best things we can do as parents (and teachers) to bolster self-esteem, give genuine feedback and allow our children to see their failures as temporary and necessary. That said, I always wonder if anything is sticking as my son yells out things like, “Mom, I’m really good at riding my bike and math, did you know that?!” Clearly the self-esteem bolstering is working, but are our follow-up comments of, “You’re only good because you try,” sticking?

This afternoon convinced me that, not only is effort based praise sticking, its molding P’s character in noticeable ways.

P loves hockey and doing anything that’s fast, which might have led to high expectations for his first ice skating experience today. He was horrible, which came as a bit of a shock to him. Athletics usually come easily for him, but not today. Not only was he slow, but he struggled to stay on his feet, even with the skate-walker. But, he was determined like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Within an hour he went from being a bundled up heap on the ice to a do -it-himselfer.

The work ethic, persistence and shear will I witnessed today reminded me of an interview with Will Smith I saw years ago. It was the first time anyone had clearly separated effort and talent in relation to success for me; the idea that hard work is a heavy counterweight to genetic ability or disability.


The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right? You’re not going to out-work me. It’s such a simple, basic concept. – Will Smith

Today P was not getting off that treadmill and it was our job to slap a helmet on him and get the hell out of his way. He went from being unable to stand without us to skating by himself while we watched from the fire pit, chatting with friends. He must have fallen at least 30 times, but it didn’t matter because he wanted to skate like a hockey player. Quoting wasn’t an option.

As he was improving we praised his effort, attitude and improvement, but shied away from comments about how good he was. As we left the rink P said to my husband and I, “I’m really good at ice skating,” to which we replied, “But, only because you tried so hard today.”

2 thoughts on “Only Because You Tried Hard

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