Researchers at Columbia University recently did a survey indicating that 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they think they’re smart. If you ask parents why they tell their kids that they’re smart, they’ll say it’s to reassure them to believe in themselves and to have the confidence to tackle the challenges that life has in store for them.
Sadly, praising kids for their intelligence does nothing of the kind; it has been shown to have the opposite effect.
For more than ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck has studied the effects of praise on fifth graders in the New York Public Schools. She found that kids who are praised for being smart avoid challenges. Why? As she writes, “When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
If you’re going to praise your child, praise effort. Dweck found that students praised for trying—for working hard—do just that: they work hard. Students praised for being smart will avoid challenges that might make them look dumb; students praised for working hard will welcome challenges. They become persistent when faced with obstacles.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
Dweck’s work has been studied by other scholars. Researchers at Stanford University and Reed College have reviewed over 150 studies done on the effects of praise. Their analysis of the data confirm that students who receive praise are more risk-averse and more dependent on teachers. Students who receive praise have “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
So what to do?
Kick the habit of telling your kid (or student) that he or she is smart. Instead encourage your child (or student) to see the connection between the effort they’ve made and the results they’ve achieved.
Encourage your kindergartener to think of his or her brain as a muscle. The more it’s used the stronger it gets.