“Wow! You’re so smart!” The words have always been quick to pop out of my mouth when I’m talking to a child who does something impressive. I think this is the case for most of us, and it can be a hard habit to break. But why would we want to break it? As it turns out, praising your child’s intelligence may actually hinder his or her ability to cope with failure. This, in turn, can negatively affect various aspects of his or her life.
In the early 2000s, Columbia University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck conducted an experiment with approximately 400 elementary students in New York schools. Essentially, her study involved giving all of the students the same relatively easy aptitude test. Afterwards, Dweck’s research assistants praised each student for his or her good score. However, some students were praised with attention to their intelligence, while others were applauded for their hard work. In line with Dweck’s initial hypothesis, the difference in emphasis seemed to affect each student’s future efforts. In subsequent tests given in the study, the students praised for their intelligence avoided the more difficult options, whereas the ones praised for their hard work were eager to attempt new challenges. Ultimately, the students who were praised for being hard-working were actually more successful than those who were told they were smart.
(You can read the specific details of the study and its conclusions in a 2007 article in New York Magazine here.)
Despite the fact that this study was published nearly a decade ago, it still isn’t very integrated into our current patterns. It is still second nature for parents, teachers, and (of course) homeschooling parents, to constantly reassure the children in our lives that they are smart. However, Dweck’s study does more than show how praising a child’s intelligence might be detrimental. It also demonstrates how influential an adult’s affirmation can be as that child struggles to learn and succeed. In light of these conclusions, here are just a few of the valuable qualities that could emerge in your child when you shift the emphasis from being “smart” to “working hard.”
The children in the study who thought of themselves as “hardworking” rather than “smart” were not afraid of failure. They chose to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles and tests, unafraid of embarrassment. They saw each new challenge as a learning process and demonstrated a boldness which will likely serve them in many aspects of life.
Boldness and curiosity go hand-in-hand. Think about how quickly very young children learn. They are always asking questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is the grass green?” When they begin to be embarrassed by asking so many questions, their curiosity reaches an apparent halt. Not only were the children in the study unafraid of embarrassment, they were curious about new challenges. Ultimately, these children learned more. You know what I think is even cooler? They wanted to keep learning.
Kids who primarily identify themselves as “smart” often face an internal ego-war. As the study indicated, children who were praised for being smart became very afraid of losing that label. This ultimately hindered their ability to move forward. Children can obviously become wrapped up in their own “smartness,” even to their own detriment. This is not so if the emphasis is on hard work, which is external rather than internal. This more humble attitude will also likely be favorable to the child as he or she builds important friendships.
Children who don’t have their identities wrapped up in “being smart” experience a unique freedom. They can try and fail without it being a major blow to their self-esteem. They can explore the world freely. Even if they don’t always look smart to others, they don’t mind. Their identity lies securely elsewhere.
The next time a child amazes you, consider the effect your praise will have. Your words have the potential not only to encourage, but also to help that child grow and learn. Sure, you could tell the child that he/she is smart, but what are some other aspects of success you might focus on? Is he particularly curious? Did she ask interesting questions? Has he been practicing a particular skill? Did she work hard? Did he fail but try again? Your words of praise will have a bigger impact than you may have imagined, so be smart . . . work hard to choose just the right ones!
What’s your opinion? Is it ok to call a child “smart”? Or should you try to focus on his/her hard work? What do you think and why?