When parents praise their children's intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it's important to tell their kids that they're smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. "You're so smart, Kiddo," just seems to roll off the tongue.
"Early and often," bragged one mom, of how often she praised. Another dad throws praise around "every chance I get." I heard that kids are going to school with affirming handwritten notes in their lunchboxes and—when they come home—there are star charts on the refrigerator. Boys are earning baseball cards for clearing their plates after dinner, and girls are winning manicures for doing their homework. These kids are saturated with messages that they're doing great—that they are great, innately so. They have what it takes.
The presumption is that if a child believes he's smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won't be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York City public school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of "smart" does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
Though Dr. Carol Dweck recently joined the faculty at Stanford, most of her life has been spent in New York; she was raised in Brooklyn, went to college at Barnard, and taught at Columbia for decades. This reluctant new Californian just got her first driver's license—at age sixty. Other Stanford faculty have joked that she'll soon be sporting bright colors in her couture, but so far Dweck sticks to New York black—black suede boots, black skirt, trim black jacket. All of which matches her hair and her big black eyebrows—one of which is raised up, perpetually, as if in disbelief. Tiny as a bird, she uses her hands in elaborate gestures, almost as if she's holding her idea in front of her, physically rotating it in three-dimensional space. Her speech pattern, though, is not at the impatient pace of most New Yorkers. She talks as if she's reading a children's lullaby, with gently punched-up moments of drama.
For the last ten years, Dweck and her team at Columbia have studied the effect of praise on students in twenty New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders— paints the picture most clearly. Prior to these experiments, praise for intelligence had been shown to boost children's confidence. But Dweck suspected this would backfire the first moment kids experienced failure or difficulty.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, "You must be smart at this." Other students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."