Every time my daughter says a new word, sings a song, or identifies a letter, the words “you are so SMART” come to my lips. Why would any parent not praise their child for being smart?
Research has shown that the simple difference between attributing a child’s academic performance to their intelligence, verses to their hard work, can affect their approach to learning. In one study, children who were praised for being smart (after doing well on a test) became risk adverse, and actually showed a decrease in performance. While children who were praised for working hard took on more difficult tasks and showed growth in their performance. *
This makes sense when you consider the message that each statement sends the child. A child who equates achievement with being smart, will equate failure with the opposite, which can create a fear of failure. In contrast, a child who sees achievement as the result of their own effort will understand that failure is something to learn from and overcome.
Kids who are afraid of failing and looking “not smart”, will shy away from challenges where they might fail, thus stunting their ability to learn. If something seems difficult, they might assume that they are not smart enough. This not only keeps them from pushing themselves and learning through challenge, it can also destroy their confidence in the very thing they were praised for, their intelligence.
In general, people will develop one of two mindsets, fixed or growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that they were born with a certain intelligence and they can not do anything to change it. People with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence is determined by their own effort. Which mindset you adopt shades how you view challenges, failures, success, and ultimately what you consider possible.
Kids need to be praised, all the time, but we need to consider the praise we give them. When we tell kids they are smart, without pointing to factors that influence their intelligence, like hard work, we encourage a fixed mindset. This in turn takes away their motivation to persist when something seems “too hard”. Numerous books touch on this topic, Brain Rules, Outliers, The Teaching Gap, and Einstein Didn’t Use Flashcards, to name a few.
Even knowing this I still tell my daughter she is smart. It’s hard not to. But I also make a conscience effort to praise the aspects of her character that influence her intelligence. Here are a few examples of the type of praise I give.
“Wow, you had to try over and over to get that puzzle piece in, but you didn’t give up!”
“You have been getting better and better at that song every day as you practice.”
“You listened so carefully, and then repeated it so well.”
“That is the first time you did that all by yourself, you worked so hard to figure it out!”
* One on-line reference to the mentioned study can be found here