How to Teach Work Ethic and Motivation by Removing “Smart” and “Proud” from Your Vocabulary

October 16, 2017

Based on my academic and career experiences with my own peers, I wondered what made some adults hardworking and even “Type A”, while others were content to “get by” with the minimum effort. As a teacher, I wondered if it was possible to teach work ethic. While modeling hard work is important, so is the way we praise students and why we praise them.

Smart Equals Lazy

If you are like me, you may have went to high school or college with a student who believed students who worked hard were not “naturally smart.” They boasted that because they were naturally smart they could (barely) pass class without trying at all. They believe naturally smart meant simply knowing the answer or succeeding instantly without having to try.

If you are a teacher or parent, you need to immediately remove “smart” from your vocabulary of compliments. When you praise a student for being “smart” you teach students to value the product and resent the process. Children learn that the solved problem – not the process of solving the problem – shows how “smart” they are. They eventually rush or avoid the process altogether in order to jump straight to the product that proves their intelligence. Praising “smart” becomes praising a student who does not need to “try” in order to succeed. This leads to students who do the bare minimum to barely pass instead of working hard to pass with high scores.

Praise the Process

Now that you have removed “smart” from your vocabulary, begin praising your student’s process. When a child shows you a drawing, solves a math problem, poses an insightful question or writes an impressive essay, praise or question how they arrived at the product. Try the following examples:

  • You really worked hard to solve that equation.
  • Great job taking the time to make this essay so thoughtful and organized.
  • I love the amount of imagination and detail you put into this drawing, essay, report…
  • I am so impressed that you didn’t give up and tried several different ways to solve the problem.
  • The amount of time you spent on this project really paid off.
  • I can tell you put a lot of effort into this. It turned out great!
  • You are so hard working, detail-oriented, focused, diligent, thorough..

When you praise a child for being smart, they learn that the need to try proves a lack of natural intelligence. By praising a student’s effort, they learn to value the amount of time, focus and effort they put into every single thing they do.

Pride Equals Conditional Love

You wouldn’t want to tell someone you loved them for the first time the moment they earned millions of dollars or became famous. The same is true when you tell someone you are proud of them. You show them your respect is not unconditional but based on specific behaviors. We’ve all met children who live for parental approval or pride. Well-meaning parents and educators may make children feel inadequate when they voice pride in behavior instead of appreciation for character.

As a parent or teacher, you may damage a child’s sense of self worth when you tell them you are proud of them. It is easy to tell someone you are proud of them when they get a high score, win a game, get a good job, etc. It is also harmful. When you tell someone you are proud, you are inadvertently telling them you are not proud – or even disappointed – when they don’t score the point, ace the test or get the acceptance letter. They will feel constant pressure to keep doing the right thing to make you proud and earn your conditional love or respect.

Unlike external achievements, it may seem safe to express pride in a child’s character. It is not. Consider the following examples:

  • I am so proud of how brave you acted.
  • I am so proud that you stood up for the student getting bullied.
  • I am so proud of how thoughtful you are.
  • I am s proud of how hard working you are.

While this well-meaning praise seems positive, it once again praises behavior, and shows a child that you will not be proud when they are not brave, not hard working, not thoughtful, etc. They will feel shame whenever they make a mistake or do the wrong thing, which they will inevitably do.  Pride in achievements and moral behavior will cause students – and adults – to hide and lie about their failures, mistakes and bad behavior.

Acknowledge and Express Happiness

So how do you express your joy and support when a student or child succeeds or does the right thing? Simply acknowledge what they have done:

  • Wow, you were so brave.
  • You made your classmate feel so much better when you stood up for him.
  • You are so kind and thoughtful.

These simple acknowledgments are far more powerful than expressions of pride. In instances of achievement, express happiness instead of pride:

  • I am so happy for you hat you won your championship!
  • I was so happy for you when I heard you got the promotion!
  • I am so happy for you that all your studying paid off with a good grade!

When you are genuinely happy for someone else, it means you care about them and how they feel. Unlike being proud of an external behavior, you are happy for their internal feelings. Being happy for someone else is the truest form of unconditional pride and support.

When you express acknowledgement and happiness for students, you give them permission to value their own internal gifts and joy instead of striving for material signs of success. Remember to praise effort over intelligence to encourage students to work hard instead of taking pride in how little they have to work to succeed. Remove smart and proud from your vocabulary to motivate students to be hardworking, self-motivated and confident.

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