12 - 48 Months

What Is Intrinsic Motivation? How To Praise Your Kids While Teaching Grit

“The more we practice speaking like this and praising the effort as opposed to the results, the more of a habit it will become… Now, we’re commenting and sharing in their experience instead of superimposing our own feelings on it.”

Susan Bordon, Licensed psychotherapist and founder of Kinspace

We parents are a proud bunch. It’s natural to shower our children with compliments when they achieve something. But when babies become toddlers, “Good job” often evolves to “You’re so smart” or “What an amazing artist you are”. Too much of this kind of feedback as our child get older, may not help them persist in the face of challenges.

Psychotherapist Susan Bordon of Kinspace joins host Jessica Rolph on today’s episode to discuss ways to encourage intrinsic motivation. With a little bit of grit, kids are more motivated to try new things even when it’s hard, and make efforts to pitch in without bribes or rewards.

Key Takeaways:

[1:41] What’s wrong with telling your toddler: “You’re so smart”?

[3:35] Susan talks about a recent research done by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, who studied the effects of praise on grade-schoolers. 

[5:25] How does this research apply to babies and toddlers?

[7:35] Why do parents praise children?

[9:20] What does it look like to be a parent who encourages intrinsic motivation?

[11:36] Praising the effort, rather than the outcome, takes practice. 

[13:40] Susan talks about how and why not to interfere when a baby or a toddler is trying to achieve a challenging task.

[16:03] How the Montessori approach to demonstrating fits into the equation.

[17:54] Words that can help build self confidence in our children.

[19:35] How to introduce the concept of sharing to children. 

[21:10] How early should parents adopt these practices to encourage intrinsic motivation in their children?

[23:40] Jessica reviews the highlights of her conversation with Susan.

Mentioned in this episode:



Is It Wrong To Praise Your Child by Telling Them They Are Smart?

Jessica: So looking forward to talking about this topic, I have so many questions for you.

Susan: Good. 

Jessica: So, I wanted to start with what is wrong with telling your toddler, “You’re so smart”? 

Susan: So I just want to say, just from the jump, there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling your kiddo that “You’re so smart,” or praising them or having that intention to tell them how awesome you think they are, but I do think what’s important is to think about the flip side of that, and think about the flip side of the importance of praising the process as opposed to only the results. So not so much about never praise your kids, but thinking about how we praise them and the quality of our praise. And ultimately, with the goal of building in a love of challenges that allow children to feel competent and powerful, and ultimately have a higher sense of self-esteem. 

You spoke about grit a little bit and thinking about how we get there. How do we get to that place where our kids love challenges and have a healthy relationship with failure and a healthy relationship with struggle? And one of the things that we as parents can do to get there with them is allow them to struggle and allow them to find that internal motivation to try new challenges and to try new things.

Really, what the research shows around consistently labeling your child with anything, “You’re so smart,” “You’re so good at sports,” “You’re so pretty,” whatever it is, the long-term results of that, what can happen is you’ve got a kiddo that is motivated by the praise and motivated by the label, and then is less likely to try new things because they really will develop a fear of failure. And that’s what’s going to keep them from feeling good about themselves ultimately and feeling like they are up to that challenge.

What Are the Effects Certain Types of Praise on Children?

Jessica: So I’ve heard of some research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, and she studied the effects of praise on grade-schoolers. Can you talk to this study a little bit more? 

Grade Schoolers

Susan: Yes. Because I do think this study is super fascinating. So Carol Dweck is a researcher from Stanford, and she did a study with elementary school kids, and she split them into two groups, and they had a couple of different tasks to complete, a couple of different tests. And the first group, she told them when they were done, “Wow, you’re so smart at this,” and the second group, she told them something to the effect of, “You must have worked really hard on this.” And they were getting the message that their brain is a muscle and their results are directly impacted by the effort that they put forth. Then they gave them a second opportunity and they presented them with two tests, each group with two tests. And the first group that was told, “You are so smart,” received the instructions and they said, “You can choose one of these tests, one of them is more difficult, but you’re going to learn a lot, and one of them is easier.” Those kids overwhelmingly chose the easier task. And then cut to the second group where they were given the same two tests and the same instructions that “You’re going to have one easier challenge and one that is going to be more difficult, but you will learn a ton.” Those kids overwhelmingly chose the harder task.

And the conclusion was really made that the kids that had this growth mindset, this idea that their results would be directly impacted by their effort, were much more likely to try, even if it meant that they failed than those that were really stuck on this label of, “You’re so smart,” they’re working to keep that label, and so what you had were kids that were not only more likely to choose an easier path, but also more likely to cheat in school. So I think that’s just so fascinating.

Jessica: That’s fascinating.

Susan: Yeah. I agree.

Babies and Toddlers

Jessica: But grade-schoolers aside, how does this research apply to babies and toddlers? 

Susan: So I really look at parenting as this constant process and quite literally of letting go. Motherhood for me has just been this ongoing process of letting go. How do I raise the bar by doing a little bit less as my kids become a little more capable? And as a parent of a baby or a toddler, you really see this around, for instance, play. It’s hard to see your kiddo have a hard time accomplishing something. It takes a lot of effort on the parents’ part to let them be frustrated and let them struggle through trying to get a ball or trying really hard to get a puzzle piece into the puzzle. It’s a lot of our instinct to just over-help and do it for them. And I think the important thing to consider is what is the intent versus the message. So our intent is so pure, we want to help them. The message that it might send to the baby or the toddler is that they can’t do it. And that they need the parent to come in and do it for them, or that they’re not as capable. In terms of what you can do just right from the jump, is really be thinking about, “Alright, how can I raise the bar by doing a little bit less so that they can ultimately experience the joy of doing something for themselves?”

So what that might look like, when I was a new parent, I literally sometimes would have to sit on my hands and force myself not to over-help them. And what that might look like is if your little one is really struggling to get a ball that’s just out of reach, we have a choice there. We can either give it to them or what we could do is notice, “Wow, you’re working really hard at getting that ball. Oh yeah, I see you’re getting really frustrated now. Do you want to take a break?” And maybe you just bring them back to you, and then you can offer them a chance to do it again. That’s a really different message than, “Yeah, that was hard for you. I’m just going to do it for you.” The same thing can apply to praise.

Why Do Parents Give Praise? 

So the thing that’s tricky with praise is I think we praise generally for two reasons. So one of them I talked about, just you think your kid is so awesome and amazing, and you want them to feel that about themselves, all the things that you feel about them, too. The other reason we praise them very often is to shape their behavior. We want them to keep doing that, so we’re going to let them know we really like it. And from a behavior standpoint, I’m always thinking about when I look at my babies, what I’m dealing with as teenagers. So with my toddler, sure, the short game, I could definitely shape their behavior by having them be motivated by how I feel about it. As a teenager, that doesn’t really help them very much. I really need them to know how to make good choices in the end because they feel good to them, not because they’re worried about how I’m going to feel about it, because they’re seeking my praise or because they’re scared of my punishment on the other side. I need them to have that internal locus of control versus that external locus of control, meaning trying to please me.

How Can Too Much Praise Backfire?

So with how it shakes out a lot with new parents, I see it a lot around food. So when we set up a dynamic; when we want our babies to eat, I want them to eat their broccoli, I really feel good about myself when they do, but the other side of that is if I set up a dynamic around food where I’m constantly saying, “Good job, you ate,” the message to the baby is, “You’re happy when I eat. So I’m going to eat either to please you or not eat to not please you,” depending on their particular temperament, but nowhere in there is that little one figuring out what I actually do want them to figure out, which is, “Do I like this food? Do I not like it? How does it feel in my body? Am I hungry? Am I not hungry?” All of the healthy eating habits. It needs to be about them and not about the parent.

What Are Some Ways To Praise a Child That Will Help Them Develop Grit?

Jessica: So then, what does this look like? So your baby’s eating broccoli, you’re really excited inside, ‘cause you’re like, they are eating healthy food. And are you saying that we should not say, “Good job, you’re eating your broccoli,” and being enthusiastic? What does it look like to be this parent that you’re describing? 

Complement Their Efforts Over Results

Susan: Yeah, it’s really hard, I’m going to tell you right now, something that I always look at it as a practice and a habit than I need to practice that. In some ways, it’s like learning a different language. I just actually had this conversation with my moms yesterday that have babies that are seven months old. And part of the reason we talk about this idea so early is that it’s just practice. The more we practice speaking like this and praising the effort as opposed to the results, the more of a habit it will become. And so in terms of, let’s say they’ve eaten the broccoli and you are doing your happy dance on the inside, and then what you could say is, “Wow, you ate a lot of broccoli, you must have really liked the taste.” Now, we’re kind of commenting and sharing in their experience instead of superimposing our own feelings on it. We’re not telling them whether it’s good or bad. They don’t need that from us. Babies do, toddlers, kids, they are developmentally in need of our feedback, but they don’t need us to tell them that something is good or bad, especially food stuff, play stuff. They can kinda figure that out on their own, and we want them to, we want them to figure out how they feel about something that ultimately will impact their own personal self-esteem and back to their own sense of grit if they’re able to deal with challenges.

Jessica: So this is a big change, and I just want to pause here because it’s really deep. It’s such a habit to say, “Good job,” or “Nice work,” to our children. And again, what I’m hearing from you is, you’re not saying that this is not okay. It is okay to say that sometimes, but also to build in a practice of saying an alternative. And it sounds like you’re really noticing and observing the facts and observing what’s happening and focusing on that rather than qualifying it with a good job. So can you give me a few more examples, because this is a really, really big brain shift here that’s happening for parents? 

Use Different Ways To Say “Good Job”

Susan: It is, especially with toddlers, I really like using “wow” as my own personal pause, because usually, I find myself when I say “Good job,” if I’m honest about it, it’s when I’m not really paying attention or I don’t know what else to say, or I’m driving or cooking dinner or something like that. And so I usually will just start with, “Wow,” And then it gives me a little bit of an opportunity to think about what I’m going to say next. So for instance, instead of, “Good job, you crawled,” you could say something like, “Wow, I see you working really hard on crawling.”

Consider How You Would Want To Be Praised

And I always try to think about what it is that I want when I want to be praised by someone or I want someone to have noticed what I’m doing. So if you worked on a big project at work and really were proud of this presentation you put together or something like that, and you showed your boss and they just said, “Good job,” it would feel a little bit hollow and you might not feel as seen as if they actually looked at the details and ask you about it, and were into the process as opposed to the end result. Kids are naturally process-oriented, they’re multi-sensory learners. We teach ourselves to be into the results as we go, but for a kid, what they need from us ultimately is that unconditional love and unconditional support that comes from just being seen.

Jessica: So I’m picturing myself on the floor with my baby, and we have this ball drop-box where you put the ball in the hole and it drops through and then it reappears again. And it actually takes a long time for babies to learn how to get the ball into the hole. And so much of my parenthood is really just my parent energy is wanting this, my baby to put that ball in the hole. And they’re trying, they want to do it, too. So I want to let them fail, but I really want to help them. Tell me what this really looks like to be the parent that you’re describing.

How To Encourage Independent Play Without Stepping In

Susan: What you’re bringing up is so interesting, and it actually comes up a lot because all of my moms have the Lovevery boxes, actually. This example comes up in all my classes. But yes, so it’s kind of two-fold. The first thing I would think about is, is this a failure moment or are they just playing with something in a different way than we think they should? And also the other interesting piece of research is that babies will lose interest in a toy exponentially faster when we show them how to do it and when we show them the right way to play with it because they’re process-oriented. They want to see what happens if they turn it upside down or knock on it, or all of that. My true nature is similar to yours, I want to show them the right way, and I want them to see how cool this thing is if they actually get to that end result, but the real reality is there’s not a right way to play. And ultimately, I want my kiddos to be lovers of this independent play and be able to really get involved with a toy and explore it. And to do that, they need to feel like they can explore fully without judgment or without being told “This is the right way to do it.”

What Do You Say if Your Child Is Struggling With a Toy?

And then as far as what to say in those moments when you see them struggling, and they actually do, you can tell they want to get it in the hole and they are maybe even a little bit frustrated, I would just notice that. This isn’t a moment where they need you to necessarily help, unless they’re asking you for help, but maybe they just want you to notice that they’re frustrated. I would just say, “I see you working really hard to get that ball in the hole, do you want a break or do you want to keep going?” And just developing a practice where they can come back and connect with you is going to ultimately lay a foundation for, jumping ahead when they’re teenagers, that they can keep those lines of communication open and connect with you during hard times. And they know that that’s something that’s available regardless of the end result. So in this particular situation, I would just say, “I notice what’s happening. I noticed you trying to get that ball in the hole. Do you want to take a break or do you want to keep trying?”

What Is Your Position on Montessori Teaching vs. Letting Kids Figure Out Toys for Themselves?

Jessica: And I couldn’t help but notice when you were describing this enjoyment of the process and letting your baby really just explore an open-ended way, the material, without you demonstrating “how it works,” this is a departure from the Montessori philosophy of demonstrating the material. So tell me more. What is your position on this way of Montessori teaching? 

Susan: I think that there is room for all of it. I think that there’s room to be the teacher to the child and show them how to use different materials. I also think just from a development perspective, in terms of how kids learn, they are, in my opinion, little teeny tiny scientists just checking their hypotheses. And if you look at, let’s say, Play-doh, for instance, and your kiddo is looking to you to make it into a flower or something like that, whereas a toddler, it might take them a really long time to make anything that looks like anything with Play-doh. They might be eating it or rolling it into a ball or smelling it. And it might take, in my opinion, a lot of patience as a parent to not just take it from them and do it for them. And ultimately, I think what we’re setting up then is this idea that the parent is in charge of the play, and the parent is the captain of play, and we’re showing them how to do things. And ultimately what that can lead towards is a kiddo that doesn’t feel as capable in their own independent play, and might look to you more to, “Okay, how do I do this? You show me,” as opposed to a child that might feel super confident in their ability to figure out what to do with themselves all day because they’ve been practicing this for a very long time.

Jessica: I love how you described that the captain of play and those words are going to come into my head when I’m getting a little bit too direct sometimes. 

Additional Ways To Compliment Kids Without Saying “Good Job”

So one of the things that has been so helpful is when you give examples of the words that we have used like, “Good job,” and then you give us alternatives, like, “Wow,” or “Oh my, what am I observing here in my child?” Can you just give me a few more of those instead of this, “Say this,” that help build this self-confidence in our children? 


Susan: Back to your toddler that’s accomplishing getting around on the playground and maybe they are saying “Mommy, look at me, I’m on top of the slide.” And you could say, “Oh, good job.” Another option is just, “Wow, look at you up there, you got all the way up there on your own.” Or even their walking, so instead of “Good job walking,” it could be, “Wow, look at you, you came all the way over here on your big, strong legs.” Again, praising the process instead of the result ultimately will help build them up from the inside out and help them figure out how they feel about stuff and really develop that internal locus of control that’s going to help them with all things self-regulation later on.

Jessica: I love how it’s specific, too. You’re helping us to just notice very specific things, and that’s something that we can do and remember, so we don’t have to remember all the words that you’re saying, but we can remember, notice specific things like, “Look, you walked here all by yourself on your big strong legs.”

Sharing and Taking Turns

Susan: So let me think of another example. It comes up a lot, especially if you have two, is that “Good sharing.” I have so much to say about this, but let’s just say we say this, “Good job sharing,” and you could say instead, “Wow, look how happy you made your brother.” Instead of just the end results, we’ve now instead allowed them to have some emotional literacy, learn about making someone else happy, now we’re showing them empathy, all of that good stuff.

Jessica: And so tell me more, you were going to say you have so much more to talk about sharing, I’m going to take us on a tangent for a second ‘cause I don’t want to be left hanging on that one. Tell me more.

Susan: I think that there are some social interaction ideals that we want to teach our kids, like sharing and apologizing comes up, still empathy things. And it’s very, very tempting to focus on, “You need to share,” when babies go for the same toy or two toddlers are wrestling over the same toy. Sharing is a really adult construct, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to kids. And for a baby or a toddler, they can’t actually share a toy. They can’t play with it at the same time, truly. And so what we’re really asking them is to take turns. So for a baby, the sharing business would be like if I said, “Jessica, I need to share those pants, give them to me right now,” that’s not sharing. That’s taking turns. And that’s something that we can teach our babies, is that they get to play with something until they’re done and fully engage in that. And usually, once that they learn that their turn will be protected, research has shown that they’re much more able to spontaneously give to others because they feel like nothing’s being taken from them all the time.

Jessica: And sharing, that deeper concept of sharing, doesn’t really resonate until age four or five. So I think a lot of parents think that their toddlers should share, but really, they are so much practicing what you’re talking about, turn-taking. 

How Can Parents Start the Intrinsic Motivation Process?

I imagine some parents might be listening to this and thinking, “Do I really have to worry about this growth mindset and all these nuances of language and change the way that I’m speaking to my 18-month old?” Can you help me understand, how early should parents adopt these practices? Why is this important again? Just hit this home for us.

How Early Should Parents Start?

Susan: So I think it’s never too early to start. And you’ll see, part of it depends on the temperament of your child. Some kiddos come into this world with a natural ability to try and make mistakes. Those are the kids that you see trying to crawl and they fall, and they get up and try again, or are very persistent in their temperament or don’t give up easily. Some kids will just watch and watch and watch, and at 18 months, just get up and walk across the room. That is a temperament naturally that is a little bit nervous about failure, and a little bit nervous about struggle. And that’s a kiddo that probably would benefit from a parent helping them stretch that, and helping show them that it’s okay to work at something and mess up, and it’s okay to fail.

How Can Parents Lead an Example Through Their Mistakes?

I know about myself that I don’t really care for doing things that I don’t know I’m going to be good at. It’s actually kind of a struggle for me, but I have these two boys who I don’t want them to have that relationship with failure. I actually really want them to be able to know that they could dig into something and decide to work at it and do it. And so as their parent, I really try hard to push myself to go out of my comfort zone, even if I mess up, and then talk about it. So what that can look like is something super simple like, “Yeah, I messed up the dinner tonight and I left the bacon in there too long in the oven, and now it burned, that was my mistake.” And just the more we start talking about our mistakes, they’re looking up to us, they actually don’t naturally think that adults make mistakes, we need to tell them that and show them that mistakes are okay.

Just last night, my seven-year-old spilled something in his room, and he is a little bit more of a perfectionist type, and he said, “I’m not doing anything right today,” and I said to him instead, “Wow, has it been a big mistake day?” And he said, “Mm-hmm.” And I’m like, “Alright, let’s talk about our mistakes. I made a bunch, too. Let’s get there.” And I think my instinct, however, was to say, “No, you didn’t, it’s okay, you’re perfect,” but that doesn’t really help him in the long run with his relationship with mistakes. They don’t have to be big and scary. They can be learning opportunities.

Jessica: We’ve learned so much from you on this topic. It’s been so great being with you today.

Susan: Thank you. It’s been great being here.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

Susan gave us some great ways to use a growth mindset to support our kids. Let’s revisit some of them:

1. Do a Little Bit Less for Your Child

It’s hard to watch when your toddler is frustrated, but if you swoop in and fix it, the message they receive may be: I don’t think you can do it yourself. Instead try, “I see you’re working really hard to solve that puzzle; do you need a break?” or “May I give you a boost so you can reach that ball?”

2. Try To Notice and Comment, Rather Than Superimposing Your Own Judgment

We often praise for two reasons: 1) You want your child to feel good about themselves, or 2) To shape their behavior. Down the line, you need your child to make good choices because these choices feel good to them, not because they want to please you. You can help develop that internal locus of control by inviting them to make up their own mind about the outcome.

3. Focus on the Effort Rather Than the Result 

This takes practice. It’s a lot like learning a new language. But praising the effort, as opposed to the results, can become a habit with time. Start small, opting for “Wow!” rather than “Good job!” It gives you an opportunity to notice the effort that went into the achievement. 

You can learn more about growth mindset on the Lovevery blog.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, 18 - 48 Months+, Child Development, Parenting

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