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5 Things to Consider before Telling your Child He's Smart

We've been praising kids the wrong way, experts say

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We all love to praise our kids. Toddlers and preschoolers hear “good job” all the time for not peeing at night, for feeding themselves, or we just gush over their cuteness!

We often praise our children because we want to motivate and encourage them to do their best in the things that they do. We marvel at their precociousness and let them know how much we admire them. “You got a perfect score, you’re so smart!”

When we encourage them, it seems natural to say, “You can do it. Ikaw pa! You’re so smart.”

While there is nothing wrong with our intentions of praising and motivating our kids, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D. says that we got it all wrong in how we do it.

Here are 5 surprising things we should know about motivating our kids based on Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Dweck’s bestselling book spanning decades of research.

1. Model and encourage a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
The heart of Dweck’s research is about mindset – or attitude or frame of mind – and how it determines the way a person handles setbacks and challenges.

In the fixed mindset, people believe that their natural God-given abilities dictate their future. In kids, this is when they think they’re not smart enough and will never get grades higher than what they are getting, or on the other hand, when they think that they are smart so they can never accept failure.

People with a growth mindset, however, believe that intelligence can be improved through effort. In a study conducted by Dweck’s associate Lisa Blackwell, one group of students was taught study skills while another group was taught an additional topic – that intelligence is not inborn and can be actually improved through challenges.

Teachers immediately spotted the difference between the two groups of students. Those who belonged to the second group improved their school performance.

What to do: Show your child that you are taking on challenging work or projects and talk about how you are growing your brain by doing so. Talk about your child’s efforts too, that every time he finds something hard and he tries to solve it, he is making himself smarter.

2. Praise a child’s effort, not her ability.
In a groundbreaking research involving 400 fifth graders, Dweck’s team studied how children performed in a second test after being praised either for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) or their effort (“You really worked hard!”) in the first round.

What happened? Well, children who were praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle in the next round while those who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier puzzle. It seems that children who were praised for being smart wanted to keep on looking smart that they chose the easier path to keep their “status.”

According to Dweck’s research, praising children for their ability – “You’re so smart! You have such an ear for music! You’re a math whiz!” – can actually lower IQ and make children stop trying to do better. After all, smart people or naturally gifted people already have “the goods,” right?

This kind of thinking is dangerous, as kids do not only stop trying but they also develop an inflated sense of self not backed by hard work.

What to do: Though it seems counter-intuitive for us not to praise our offspring’s intelligence, it is better to praise their specific effort – “I’m glad that you practiced everyday, that’s why you did well in your recital” or “Those hours answering practice math questions really paid off, no?”

3. Labels don’t help kids.
When girls interested in math are teased that math is just for boys, they can lose their interest and mask it with indifference. When boys show a penchant for dance, and are teased about it, they can just stop dancing altogether.

Whether negative or positive, labeling or stereotyping do not help kids as they are put in a box that they might find hard to get out of. It also trains them to think in a fixed mindset.

Dweck says on the third chapter of her book, “So in the fixed mindset, both positive and negative labels can mess with your mind. When you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.”

What to do: Do you label your kids? “You’re going to be a doctor because you’re good in science!” “You are such an artist!” Try to think of other ways to praise your child that will promote a growth mindset.

4. Teach kids that process is more important than the result.
Teaching our children the growth mindset entails teaching them that process is more important than the result. Success, after all, means going back harder and smarter after a loss or a failure.

Embracing failure teaches us how to work harder and get up. We learn from our failures when we study where we went wrong and how we can improve ourselves.
Teaching our children, then, to enjoy the process of arriving at a solution is something that we need to do.

What to do: Instead of being satisfied with a child’s answer, show interest in how she arrived at her conclusion. In solving math problems, ask about how she got her answer and listen to her thought process.

5. You can and should change your child’s mindset.
Most of us are stuck in a fixed mindset. But mindset, like intelligence, can be changed, according to Dweck. Parents should emphasize “becoming” instead of just “being” to help kids learn that life is a process that is lived everyday.

Being aware of and accepting that there is such a thing as mindset is the first step towards helping our children to become properly motivated. Knowing about the fixed and growth mindsets can help us identify how our children think, and will enable us to guide them towards thinking that their intelligence and success can be improved through effort.

What to do: Dweck recommends for parents to ask children during ordinary conversations about what mistakes they have made and what they have learned from it. This will give kids the idea that mistakes are okay and should not be something to be scared of. Ask your child about skills that he wants to learn and help him start on it.

Helping our children develop a growth mindset can be far more beneficial than doling out praise for what they already have. When motivating our children, we should focus on actual learning and not just their grades. Dweck recommends taking the burden of labels off and allowing our children to enjoy their abilities and the success that comes through hard work.

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