Praising a Child as “Smart” Can Be Detrimental

June 16, 2010 at 9:28 pm Leave a comment

Smart Girl With BooksWe’ve been told for years that praising our children is a good thing; that it builds self-esteem and confidence.  It’s almost instinctual to applaud a child as smart when they do something clever.  My four year-old just recited the fifty states in alphabetical order (thanks to his nanny’s fondness for the Fifty Nifty United States song) and then proceeded to identify more states than I can on his map puzzle.  So I had to bite my tongue not to say “you’re so smart!” or “your memory is amazing!”  I’m fighting my ingrained habits of praise because a growing body of research is showing that complementing innate talents such as intellect or athletic ability can have a number of negative consequences.

Carol Dweck from Stanford University (formerly Columbia) has studied the effects of praise on motivating kids.  Her researchers worked with 400 fifth graders, giving each of them a relatively easy series of IQ puzzles and then randomly either praising their intelligence: “You must be smart at this” or their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”  It was that simple.  Then, the researchers asked the kids whether they wanted to take on a more challenging puzzle that would help them learn in the process, or do another easy one.  90% of those praised for their effort chose the harder test, while the majority of those praised for their intellect chose the easier one.  Hence negative consequence #1: children become risk averse, avoiding challenges so that they can continue to look smart and avoid embarrassment.

Next, all of these fifth graders were given a difficult test (designed for seventh graders) and as expected, all of them failed.  But the responses from the two groups differed considerably.  In 2007, Po Bronson of New York Magazine reported that,

Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

The second negative consequence of praising smarts is impaired performance after setbacks, as kids lose faith in what they believed were innate abilities.

In other studies by Dweck and her team, frequently praised children are shown to be more competitive and focused on undermining others.  Indeed, a troubling finding was that 40% of those praised for their intelligence lied to their peers in overstating their scores.  So a third unfortunate consequence is that abundant praise fosters negative competitiveness and even cheating.

Despite these demonstrated downsides, 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.  As much as we want to praise our children’s successes, there are more effective ways to do so, namely focusing on our their process and effort.   “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Dweck explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

Additionally, studies by Dweck and Lisa Sorich Blackwell focusing on low-achieving seventh graders found that these students respond very well to instruction about how the brain works.  Students who were taught about how intelligence can be developed (and is not innate) demonstrated improvements in math scores relative to a control group that was taught study skills instead.  The two brain lessons totalled only 50 minutes.  The message of the lessons: the brain, like a muscle, grows stronger with exercise.

Kids who are encouraged to pursue a “mastery” orientation are taught that challenges are good.  In the face of setbacks, rather than focusing on failures, they should focus on what else to try or how they might improve through effort.  The mastery orientation encourages persistence even when external rewards and praise are absent.

Interestingly, her research on mastery (growth) orientation versus performance (fixed) orientation is also being applied in the fields of sports performance and even personalities, relationships, and morality.  According to Stanford Magazine,

In a recent study, Dweck found that people who believe personality can change were more likely than others to bring up concerns and deal with problems in a constructive way. Dweck thinks a fixed mind-set fosters a categorical, all-or-nothing view of people’s qualities; this view tends to make you ignore festering problems or, at the other extreme, give up on a relationship at the first sign of trouble…

Dweck has already found that preschoolers with this growth mind-set feel okay about themselves after they’ve messed up and are less judgmental of others; they’re also more likely than kids with a fixed view of goodness to try to set things right and to learn from their mistakes. They understand that spilling juice or throwing toys, for example, doesn’t damn a kid as bad, so long as the child cleans up and resolves to do better next time.

Recommendations for Parents

  • Teach your children that the brain is like a muscle. The harder it works, the stronger it gets & the smarter you become.  This encourages a growth mind-set about intelligence.
  • When you praise, be specific, and focus on the process and effort, rather than implying innate smarts or talent.  Praise them for focusing, listening, demonstrating tenacity.  Examples from Stanford Magazine:
  1. “That homework was so long and involved. I really admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”
  2. “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
  3. “You put so much thought into that essay. It really makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”
  • Discuss failures, don’t just brush them off by telling your child that he will do better next time.  Kids need a framework for dealing with failure.  Avoiding the topic of failure makes it seem terrible, thus discouraging challenges.  After a failure, encourage more effort or perhaps a different approach next time.
  • For parents of middle-schoolers, consider subscribing to Brainology, Dweck’s online program that teach kids about how the brain can develop with exercise.

Entry filed under: Emotional Intelligence, Research. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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