Does The Way We Affirm Teenagers Hinder Them?

Kara Powell | Nov 14, 2011

A few years ago, I heard about some research conducted by Stanford University’s (go Andrew Luck! Sorry, couldn’t resist) Carol Dweck on the effects of our affirmation on children and teenagers. More specifically, the relationship between the types of words we use and the way they invite, or don’t invite, teenagers to continue to grow.

As this Harvard Business Review blog well summarizes the heart of Dweck’s research:

One study primed people with a simple phrase praising their intelligence based on completing a difficult task rather than the effort they put in to achieving the task by saying “You’re so smart,” versus “You must have worked hard.” This simple statement had the “smart” ones less willing to take learning risks in the future, as well protecting their status by lying. In fact, those praised for intelligence were found to be three times more likely to lie about their performance than those praised for effort.

As soon as Dave and I read Dweck’s study, we started to talk more with our own children about “hard work” than their accomplishments. Whether it be soccer or spelling, we talk with our kids about how proud we are of how hard they tried, not the end result of their efforts. Our hope is that our kids realize how important it is to keep trying, to keep growing.

As the recent HBR blog points out, this research can also be applied to organizations to help them develop a growth mindset.

Can organizations develop a growth mindset? One research project showed it’s possible by developing a workshop around mindset. It began with an article and video on how the brain grows with learning throughout life. Participants are then asked, “What’s an area where you once had low ability but now perform quite well? How were you able to make this change?” or “Who is someone in your life who has dramatically improved their performance? How did they do it?” Participants were then asked to draft an email to an employee who was doing well and then struggled.

After the workshop, these managers exhibited more openness to critical feedback, willingness to mentor and a higher quality of mentoring and openness to the possibility of employees’ changing.

This research begs the question: what can we do in our ministries and our families to help ourselves, and the other members, lean into growth? What questions can we ask? What qualities can we affirm?

The next time you’ve having a great conversation with a teenager or another leader, what questions can you ask them that might help them think more about how they can keep growing? How can you affirm their faithful effort?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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