When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, we quickly agreed on two things: a name, and that we would never call our kid “smart”.
Like many people, my husband and I grew up believing intelligence is a dichotomy: you’re either smart, or you aren’t. Same for athletics, musicianship, or artistic talent. These things were innate. However, what we were learning, both personally and professionally, was that it wasn’t our intelligence or talents that were fixed — but rather our mindset around them.
I was in the middle of reading Nurture Shock, which discusses the research of Dr. Carol Dweck and the “Inverse Power of Praise” in its first chapter. Essentially, lavishing praise on kids and calling them smart was not having the impact parents and teachers hoped it would have. Instead of feeling empowered and driven, it made kids afraid of failure.
My husband, then in his sixth year of teaching math, had seen firsthand the potential negative impact on educational success for certain students designated as “smart.” A number of my husband’s students that were labeled “gifted” opted to give up rather than challenge themselves and potentially fail when faced with new material that did not come easy to them.
If telling our kids they’re brilliant is not the answer, what is? We wanted our kids to live up to their potential, and bombarding a child in affirmations of their intelligence was our model for loving and encouraging parenting. We watched parents around us effusively shower their kids in praise. What was the harm?
What we were learning about was the difference between a “fixed mindset” (our intellect is fixed and unalterable) and a “growth mindset” (we can grow our intelligence through effort). The former, reinforced by praise about a child’s inherent intelligence, left kids with the belief that there was nothing more they could do when faced with academic challenges. The latter, affirmed by encouragement acknowledging a child’s effort, validated the reality that our brains are like muscles that can grow stronger with challenges and resulted in kids that believed in their ability to learn and grow and were more willing to challenge themselves academically.
Though praising intelligence might have short-term positive impacts, in the long term it is harmful. The positive impact of being called smart only works as long as the material in front of the child is easy. However, when faced with academic challenges that could potentially threaten their identity as smart, children were prone to stop trying altogether rather than risk failure. The negative impact of a fixed mindset is even larger for girls and minorities.
While my husband and I quietly obsess over our children’s brilliance after they fall asleep, we are careful to watch what words we use around them, especially in regards to academic success. We praise their effort and their persistence, inquire about their interests, celebrate failures — and never call them smart.
In Dr. Dweck’s book, Mindset, she writes, “[A]s you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another — how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.”
Although removing the praise of “smart” might seem counterintuitive at first, anyone that has struggled to achieve a goal can quickly relate to the importance of focusing on what we can control. Shifting from “person praise” like, “You’re so smart!” to “process praise,” which focuses on a child’s efforts or strategies has direct and immediate impacts on a child’s willingness to challenge themselves, increase their efforts when faced with challenging situations, and learn more.
In fact, a 2019 study showed that even a “short (less than one hour), online growth mindset intervention … improved grades among lower-achieving students.” The strategy has been proven effective for all grades, ethnicities, genders, variety of academic achievement levels, and both urban and rural settings.
Like anything in parenting, the work begins with us. If we believe in a fixed mindset, we are more likely to view our children through the same lens. The good news is that we do not need any special training. The change starts with our understanding and our practicing effective praise consistently.
This looks like focusing on strategy and efforts, being specific, and connecting outcomes to effort. “You aced your spelling quiz — you’re so smart!” evolves into, “I saw how hard you studied for your spelling quiz!” Struggles are opportunities to get curious and inquire about how they got to a conclusion: “Hmmm … how did you get that answer? What are some other ways you could try?”
In addition to avoiding “you’re smart,” it’s also important to forgo praising our kids for things that require low effort, or minor accomplishments. Our children know when we’re being authentic, and reserving praise is part of building the trust that we mean what we say. We don’t want to jump to comfort or shame. Every struggle is an occasion for more learning.
As Dr. Jacob Towery, adjunct clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Stanford University, summarizes, “the good news is mindsets are highly changeable.” Thankfully, that also applies to our mindsets around parenting … and how we view and talk to our kids.
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