“Contrary to popular belief, praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better,” said Carol Dweck, a professor of developmental psychology at Stanford University and author of “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”
Her surprising research, which she has repeated with hundreds of kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds, was published recently in the journal Child Development.
Dweck found that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge.
“Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are,” Dweck says. “They are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to learn.”
When parents, teachers and coaches label a child, they tell the child that he or she is the label and is judged for this label, not for his actual capabilities. The child becomes risk-averse and doesn’t want to chance messing up and being labeled “dumb.” In other words, a “smart” child often believes that expending effort is something only “dumb” kids have to do.
Be Specific About Praise and Don’t Be Afraid to Withhold It
The key is to be specific about the praise you give. “Parents should praise children for their effort, their concentration, their strategies,” Dweck said.
For instance, next time your son gets an A on an exam for which you know he hardly studied, tell him you think he should try a tougher class next semester. When he scores the winning touchdown, instead of telling him he’s the best player on the team, ask him how he trained to run so fast.
The flip side is that parents must be honest when their children do not perform as well as their peers. If your daughter finishes last at the track meet, and you know it is because she’s younger and less experienced than other competitors, it is better to tell her that she did not deserve to win because she still needs improvement than to tell her you thought she was the best, no matter what the judges said.
But it’s hard to refrain from telling children how smart or perfect they are.
“We believe that by telling them they’re smart, they’ll believe they’re smart, and if they believe they’re smart, they’ll attack their schoolwork with confidence,” said Po Bronson, a father of two who wrote the cover story in the current issue of New York Magazine, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.” Writing the article forced Bronson to re-evaluate his own parenting techniques after learning of Dweck’s research.
“I was frightened of this idea that telling a child that they’re smart makes them think that effort is only for dummies, and if you’re smart you shouldn’t have to rely on effort,” Bronson said.
It has not been easy, but Bronson and his wife have changed their ways.
“I have found that I just need to be honest,” Bronson said. “Being honest is going to serve us better in the long run.”