When You Tell Children They're Smart, It Makes Them Dumb

When You Tell Children They’re Smart, It Actually Makes Them Dumb

When children do something praiseworthy, it’s easy to tell them, “You’re so smart!” But what about when they fail? Does failure imply stupidity? Quite the contrary! Failure, and persevering through it, is actually one of the hallmarks of success! But when we repeatedly praise children for “being smart”, for “getting the right answer”, or for “getting good grades”, we are implying that the outcome (rather than the process) is all that we care about.

In their absolutely riveting book about research-based parenting topics called NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman touch on a very interesting subject in their chapter, “The Inverse Power of Praise”.

Why Do We Praise Kids for “Being Smart”?

Bronson and Merryman discuss how this idea really took off with the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self Esteem when author Nathaniel Branden began a movement of belief that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person. In 1984, California even created a “Self Esteem Task Force” because they believed that raising self-esteem would improve everyone’s quality of life. What ensued was an entire generation of kids growing up feeling entitled because they were constantly and repeatedly told that they were smart. But is this really such a bad thing?

Bronson and Merryman explain how researchers Dweck and Blackwell reviewed 15,000 scholarly articles from 1970-2000 about self esteem, and concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievements, it didn’t reduce alcohol usage, and it especially didn’t lower violence of any sort. (Actually, they found that highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves.)

Bronson and Merryman further explain that,

“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 research is actually showing the opposite to be true and that,

“Giving kids the label of ‘smart’ does not prevent them from underperforming. I might actually be causing it.”

Parents mean well when they tell their children that they are smart. They believe in them, and they want them to succeed. But these blanket statements of innate intelligence actually do children a considerable disservice.

Effort Over Innate Intelligence

Take the example of Carol Dweck’s work. She and her team at Columbia spent ten years studying the power of praise on students in twenty New York City Schools. In one example, she designed and conducted an experiment that clearly shows how a belief in innate intelligence discounts the importance of effort. Here’s an overview of the experiment.

  • Researchers would take one fifth grade child into the hall at a time and give them a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles that were designed to be fairly easy so that the children would do well.
  • After giving the children their score, researchers would give them a single line of praise. One group was praised for their intelligence and told, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was praised for their effort and told, “You must have worked really hard.”
  • Then, students were given a choice to take a more difficult test where they would learn a lot, or an easy test. Of the children who were praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder test. Of those praised for being smart, the majority chose the easy test.
  • Why is this? The conclusion Dweck surmised is that, “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.”

“Being Smart” Doesn’t Prepare Kids for Failure

In another experiment, Dweck shows how emphasizing natural intelligence can actually have detrimental effects because it teaches children that if they are “smart” they don’t need to put out an effort. Here is a summary of that experiment:

  • The same fifth graders were given a subsequent test that was designed to be difficult and which all students (predictably) failed.
  • The group who had been praised for their effort on the first test assumed that they hadn’t worked hard enough on this test and Dweck recalls that, “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles.” Many even commented that this was their favorite test.
  • This was not the same for the group who had been praised for being smart. They assumed that their failure was proof that they really weren’t smart after all. Dweck remarked that, “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
  • Then, all the students were given a final round of testing designed to be as easy as the first round had been. Those who had been praised for their effort did significantly better, by 30%. But those who had been praised for being smart did worse, by about 20%.
  • Dweck concluded that,“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural ability takes it out of their control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”
  • In repeating her experiments, Dweck found that these results held true for students of every socioeconomic class and that it hit both boys and girls, but especially the very brightest girls. It even held true for preschoolers.

Teaching Kids That Intelligence Can Be Developed

In this next example, teachers in East Harlem decided to apply Dweck’s research in their own schools to help improve math scores. Here’s what they did:

  • They took 700 low performing students and split them into two groups. One group was taught study skills and the other group was taught study skills and how intelligence is not innate.
  • In the group where students were taught that intelligence is not innate, they took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows more neurons when challenged. They also saw slides of the brain and acted out skits.
  • At the end of the eight week session, the students who were in the group that learned about the brain and how intelligence is not innate showed marked improvement in their study skills and grades. It was further noted  that, “The teachers – who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop – could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed.”

Excessive Praise Distorts Childrens’ Motivations

When children do things merely to hear the praise, they can lose sight of the intrinsic enjoyment an activity can bring. Bronson and Merryman discuss a meta-analysis of 150 praise studies in which they found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of a question.” They go on to explain how,

“When they get to college, heavily praised students commonly drop out of classes rather than suffer a mediocre grade, and they have a hard time picking a major – they’re afraid to commit to something because they’re afraid of not succeeding.”

Children should be allowed to explore and discover the things that they are passionate about, the things that bring them joy, and the things that make them who they are. If they are always trying to please an adult, they will never truly discover this.

Praise the Process Not the Outcome

The solution here is to not stop praising children altogether or to never tell them that they are smart, but rather to be more mindful of the type of praise we dole out. One of the solutions is to praise children for their process along the way instead of the final product.

The other day, for example, I was working with my four year old son on Khan Academy doing some early math problems. Together we watched the instructional videos and then did the practice problems. When he was done with a problem, he got to push a button that would say whether or not he got the answer right. He was always excited to hear that he got the answer right, and I could have only congratulated him when he got the answer right with a, “Good job! You got the right answer!” But instead, I praised him along the way by saying things like,

  • “I really like how you used the picture clues to read those directions.”
  • “Great job using your finger to count every ______ (object)!”
  • “You’re really good at math because you double check to see if you got the right answer.”
  • “You used the strategy of counting on your fingers! That’s what kids who are good at math do!”
  • When he got an answer wrong, I didn’t make a big deal about it, but said, “Let’s try that again.”
  • And yes, I may have congratulated him a time or two for getting the right answer, but that wasn’t the only praise he was getting during this process.

Another example occurred the other day when my five year old daughter showed me a puzzle she completed. “Look what I did mom!” she said to me excitedly. Once again, I could’ve just praised the end result by saying, “I’m so proud of you for finishing that puzzle! You did such a good job!” But instead, I asked her a series of questions that created a wonderful line of dialogue between us. I said things like,

  • “That’s great honey! What strategies did you use to solve the puzzle?”
  • “After you found the corner pieces, what did you do next?”
  • “What was your favorite part of the puzzle?”
  • “Was it easy for you or hard for you? Why?”

We had a lovely conversation about the puzzle that didn’t end with her simply being encouraged to do things to get my approval. I want my children to be intrinsically motivated to find the things that are exciting for them, not the things that will get me to praise them.

Give Specific Praise

This is something that Bronson and Merryman touch on as well, and it was something that was taught to me time and time again through my education courses. When I was a teacher, I wouldn’t just walk around the room doling out praise willy nilly to boost kids’ self esteem. I would find specific characteristics about what they were doing to praise. I would say things like,

  • “I really like how you’re using a variety of colors to draw your picture. I can tell that you really like to be creative.”
  • “Nice job showing your work on that math problem! Now I can see exactly what is going on in your head!”
  • “When you were solving that problem with your friend, I really like how you used your words to share your feelings.”
  • “When you were reading that page, I really liked how you read the punctuation. That’s what good readers do!”
  • “At the beginning of the year, you didn’t know how to write any of your letters, but now you can write all of them! And every time you practice writing, I can tell that your letters are getting smaller and neater. Pretty soon, you’re going to have handwriting like me!”

I enjoy doing this with my children too. It takes a bit more time on my part because I have to really know what they are capable of, what their progress has been like, what their interests are, and how I can articulate all of this verbally, but by praising them in a way that highlights something specific that they did, it really helps to guide them to the next level.

In Conclusion

As parents, we want our children to be successful, and we want them to be happy, but it turns out that repeatedly telling them that they are smart in an effort to boost their self esteem is not the best way to do this. By instead praising the process and being specific with our praise, we can help our children to be able to articulate the things that they are good at and the things that they enjoy. Because in the end, our children are not our little trophies to show off how awesome we have been as parents; they are unique individuals who can use our encouragement not to be what we think they should be, but to be whatever they want to be in life. Now doesn’t that sound like a smart idea?

For Further Reading