I heard this interview with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck last weekend on To the Best of Our Knowledge. The 10-minute recording is well worth a listen. She's talking about her new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which describes her research on factors leading to resilience and self-esteem in children.
The upshot is that parents seeking to raise resilient* kids should praise process, rather than end results or innate qualities. For example, "That's a really interesting mistake. What should we do now?" Or: "You chose a really difficult problem; you're going to learn a lot from that." The kinds of praise kids hear more often--"Good job!" or "You're so smart/talented!"--are actually detrimental, because they suggest an either/or situation. Either you did a good job or you didn't; either you're smart and talented, or you're not. This leads to a "fixed mindset," in which the child believes every problem is a test of his or her innate abilities, and becomes terrified to fail. He or she starts to avoid challenges, and has a harder time learning and growing.
With the alternative, the "growth mindset," kids see intelligence, athletic ability, etc. as things that can be developed over time. Not only do they not fear challenges, they enjoy them and seek them out, and their abilities improve accordingly.
The really good news, according to Dweck, is that this mindset can be learned at any age.
*The term the interviewer and Dweck both use here is "successful," but I am having trouble tossing that word around without extensive qualification. "Success" in this culture so often just means wealth and/or prominence. I would almost prefer the term "happy" here, or "fulfilled." Of course, the same mindset is necessary for any definition of "success."