For most students, science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) subjects are not intuitive or easy. Learning in general—and STEM in particular—requires repeated trial and error, and a student’s lack of confidence can sometimes stand in her own way. And although teachers and parents may think they are doing otherwise, these adults inadvertently help kids make up their minds early on that they’re not natural scientists or “math people,” which leads them to pursue other subjects instead.

Ego can beat curiosity

So what’s the best way to help kids feel confident enough to stay the STEM course? To answer this question, I spoke with Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California. Over the past 20 years, Dweck has conducted dozens of studies about praise’s impact on students’ self-esteem and academic achievement. Here is a transcript of our conversation, which has been condensed and lightly edited.

Alexandra Ossola: What sparked your interest in this field?

Carol Dweck: We undertook this research at the height of the self-esteem movement, when the gurus were telling parents and teachers to praise kids to the hills, to tell them how talented, intelligent, brilliant they were. And this was supposed to boost their confidence and set them up for a successful life. And I thought, I don’t think so. When students thought of their intelligence as a thing that’s just fixed, they were vulnerable. They were not willing to take on challenges that might test their intelligence, and they weren’t resilient when they came into obstacles. Would children want to take on challenging things if they think that’s their claim to fame? It would discredit this valuable, permanent quality.

Ossola: What is a mistake that parents and teachers often make when it comes to praising kids?
Dweck: They often praise the ability, the talent, or the intelligence too much. The opposite of this is the good process praise. This is praise for the process the child engages in—their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement.

We conducted a study where we recorded videotapes of mothers interacting with babies when they were one, two, and three years old. The more the mothers gave process praise, the more their kids had a growth mindset and a desire for challenge five years later. And now we’re finding how much better those kids are achieving even two years after that.

Gender is relevant: The mothers are giving boys more process praise than they’re giving girls. Years ago we found the same thing in teachers giving feedback.