Raising Successful Kids

Parents who raise successful kids never make this mistake, says Ivy League child psychologist—it's easier said than done

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Success requires motivation. And teaching kids to be internally motivated is easier said than done, says Dr. Tovah Klein.

When parents try to motivate their children by enthusiastically cheering them on or heaping praise on them, they can actually do more harm than good, says Klein, a child psychologist, author and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. Barnard is an undergraduate women's college of Columbia University.

"Over-cheering and over-praising" is a common mistake, Klein tells CNBC Make It. "Parents often think that this is linear: 'If I want my child to be motivated, I have to motivate them myself to get them there.'"

That's not actually the case, she says: It might sound counterintuitive, but parents might need to back off and tone down their cheerleading to truly motivate their kids.

Here's why.

The dangers of praising children too much

Too much praise can negatively affect children, research shows — sometimes turning them into "praise junkies" who tie their self-worth to external approval. Those children come to expect overt praise, and are extremely disappointed when they don't receive it.

This can lead to anxiety and a fear of failure, rather than kids developing the resilience to bounce back from their failures.

Kids are "inherently curious to begin with," which helps fuel their motivation to try new things and take on new challenges, says Klein. "[But] the praising and cheering takes away the curiosity ... It becomes, 'Oh, did I please Mommy or Daddy? Are they cheering me? Why aren't they cheering for me?'"

When children lose sight of whether an activity or behavior itself is rewarding, it "actually works against that internal motivation," Klein says.

That's why psychologists often advise parents to praise their kid's process, rather than the outcome. Kids who only want to perform well to receive praise from their parents can become adults whose only motivation for high performance is a potential raise or promotion.

In contrast, children who receive support and encouragement to seek out fun, rewarding challenges on their own — from trying a new sport to performing a cool science experiment — are more likely to develop the intrinsic motivation they need to succeed.

Intrinsic motivation increases your curiosity and persistence, and leads to improved work performance and psychological wellbeing, research shows.

You can still praise your kids, of course

Your children still need to feel that you support them, Klein says. You just have to let them take the lead in discovering activities and behaviors that motivate them to succeed.

As children grow, they constantly develop their own "sense of self," says Klein. That means a lot of exploring and trying new things — and every time they master a new skill or solves a tough problem, "they get this really good feeling of, like, 'I can do that! I can figure things out. And I want to take on a [new] challenge,'" she adds.

Fostering that feeling can help your child develop their own internal motivation, which will drive them to continue setting new goals and striving for success as they age.

So where should you focus your praise? On the methods or skills kids use to solve problems, Klein says.

Often, that simply means being present and supportive — offering encouragement, and helping your child handle the natural frustrations of attempting something new and challenging. Similarly, don't be afraid to let your child fail before they succeed, says Klein.

Letting kids try multiple strategies on their own to solve a problem helps them learn more and develop greater determination, which Klein says is more helpful than phrases like "You can do it!" or "You're the best!"

Those phrases can ring especially hollow when children are already frustrated, she adds.

"Helping them with the negative emotions, being a support, and catching them when they're really upset that something didn't go their way ... is what actually helps them be driven to do it," Klein says.

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