What You Say To Your Kids Matters

A new study strongly suggests praising our children by telling them ‘how smart they are’ may not do the good we hope it does.  Labeling kids as “smart” may actually cause them to underperform and display a lack confidence in trying new things.

For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has been interested in children’s perceptions of their ability and the effects of simple praise for over ten years. To learn more about these issues, Dweck tested children one at a time using a series of simple puzzles, which were either very easy or extremely hard for their age group.  The results were:

  • Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles.
  • Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.

Dweck interpreted these results to mean that the “smart” kids had chosen the easy puzzles in order to appear smart and not risk the embarrassment of not doing well.

Next, another much harder test was given that the children were sure to fail. This was followed by a final set of tests that were designed to be very easy. These results were unexpected:

  • 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.

Praise for being smart backfired, either because the kids reasoned that since they were smart and they did not have to always put forth effort or they could have assumed that they were actually secret failures and thus did not put forth the effort to do well. However, the children who were praised for trying, tried harder as a result of the praise. This shows there needs to be a balance between intelligence and effort.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” explains Dweck. “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.”

With regard to addiction recovery, we see smart people every day that cannot control their addictions. It is important with adults, as much as with children, to praise the effort being made. …good information to have both for bringing up our kids and working well with others!


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