Why You Shouldn't Tell Your Kids They're 'Smart'



I try not to get into the habit of telling my kids they're smart.

Don't get me wrong.  This habit doesn't mean that I think they have low intelligence; quite the opposite is true.  However, if they bring home a great grade or happen to grasp a concept easily, the last thing I want to say to them is "Wow, you're so smart!"

Before you jump on me for being a bad parent or sic the childhood self-esteem police on me, let me explain.

A year or so ago, I read something on the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, and it profoundly shifted my thinking on parenting, intelligence, and self-esteem. Dweck has studied, among other things, the negative implications of affirming kids by telling them they're "smart" when they succeed.  New York Magazine has a great piece getting into some of the fascinating nuances of the study, but here are the headlines:

Kids who were told they were smart were more likely to rely on their intelligence and discount the importance of effort.  They worried more about keeping up the appearance of being "smart" rather than trying to learn new skills.  However, if a kid was told that they were doing well because they worked hard, they were more likely to take risks and try increasingly difficult problems.  The group that was praised for being "smart" suddenly focused on managing the appearance of intelligence to avoid the risk of making a mistake.  The "smart" group quickly developed a fear of failure and did everything to avoid it.  However, the other group was told that their intelligence was something to be developed through hard work and, as a result, they took increasingly greater risks in order to learn. When this group made mistakes, they worked hard to learn from them.

When I first read this report, I really questioned the data.  I had always worked under the assumption that any verbal praise was good and had really never thought that what was being praised mattered.  I dug a little deeper and learned that it's not praise that's the problem; it's praise for the wrong thing.  Dweck's point was this:  if you think your raw intelligence is something  you're born with, then you will rely on it.  When that happens, you expect to "get it" easily and then you don't "work for it."  If you fail to develop the habit of hard work in developing your intelligence, then your accomplishments will be severely diminished.

You and I can tell stories of "book smart" people we know who struggled to take risks and walked away when a project turned difficult.  We see lots of intelligent people give short-shrift to the idea of hard work, only to end up in jobs and situations way below their potential.  On the flip side, we have also seen the power (and success) of perseverance, a strong work ethic, and persistent effort among those who might not have the raw intelligence to carry them. Upon reflection, the danger of "coasting" on IQ rather than embracing hard work rang true.  Bottom line: if a person doesn't know how to work hard, the ability to persevere in the face of challenge just won't happen.

Billy and I started to think about how to apply this insight to our family.  We realized that even if we DID praise our children's intelligence, there will be days when when our kids don't feel particularly smart. The challenge may be middle school, a more dramatically competitive environment during their freshmen year in college (like my husband experienced at his alma mater), or the learning curve of a new job. In those moments we would like them to revert to effort and hard work instead of panic or a paralyzing focus on why they are or are not "smarter."  Smart doesn't help nearly as much as hard work.  So we don't want to throw a party about the blue ribbon, but about the hard work.

After we "caught" the pitch and could visualize the importance of using words around work, we had to apply the lesson practically. Billy and I spent time brainstorming the new way to talk to our kids.  To be this strategic with our words may sound a little odd (and/or geeky), but we knew we had to have a bit of a script to retrain ourselves to affirm effort over intelligence.  Here are a few examples of what we try to say when given the opportunity:

Parent: Wow! An A on your test! Why do you think you did well on this?  Kid: I don't know.  Parent: Because you studied hard, that's why!

Kid: I'm never going to get this! Parent: So, do you think you should just give up? Kid: No. Parent: So, what do you think has to happen? Kid: Keep trying and practice. Parent: Yes!

Parent: Wow!  You really improved on that timed test. You are making so much progress! How is this happening?  Kid: Because I practiced so much!

Kid: The test was easy.  Parent: Was the test easy or was it easy for you?  Kid: I don't know.  Parent: Did you know that before you started Third Grade?  Kid : No. I don't think so.  Parent: Well then, you must have paid attention to the teacher/book/homework…and that is what made it easy.  You worked hard and learned!  Way to go!

None of these exchanges require more than an extra sentence or two from what you'd normally say to your child.  The complexity comes not in making the statements, but in being intentional with the plan and deliberate with the words.   We love to praise our kids when they win or succeed at something.  But, we've also really enjoyed having an avenue to affirm our kids and build their self-esteem when they've just moved from 15th to 8th place through sheer hard work.  The effort to improve is just as important, if not more so.

We know we're not going to get our kids to understand perseverance because we're "smart" parents…

… but we are going to try real hard.

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This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.