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May 17, 2011

Is 'Smart' a Good Label for Your Child?

Author: JenniferMaster1

Does telling your child he is smart keep him from under-performing? Does this boost his confidence to do well at all he attempts? Recent research suggests that this might actually be a hindrance in your child’s ability to tackle challenges.

We praise our children with good intentions. However,  for the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. A series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders paints the picture most clearly.

Researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. 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. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.1

We need to help children understand their self-worth for who they are, not necessarily what they do. Asking a child what they want to be when they grow up can be confusing because what a person does for a living does not define identity or self-worth. Professions or possessions don’t define what great attributes and characteristics someone has as a person in our society. Some members of society would have us think otherwise as they themselves find satisfaction in power or a feeling of having more or being more than others.

“In helping children discover who they are and helping strengthen their self-worth, we can appropriately compliment their achievement or behavior—the do. But it would be even wiser to focus our primary praise on their character and beliefs—who they are.

In a game of sports, a wise way to compliment our children’s performance—do—would be through the point of view of be—like their energy, perseverance, poise in the face of adversity, etc.—thus complimenting both be and do.

When we ask children to do chores, we can also look for ways to compliment them on being, such as, “It makes me so happy when you do your chores with a willing heart.”

When children receive a report card from school, we can praise them for their good grades, but it may be of greater lasting benefit to praise them for their diligence: “You turned in every assignment. You are one who knows how to tackle and finish difficult things. I am proud of you.”

At the dinner table, occasionally talk about attributes… “In what way were you a good friend today? In what way did you show compassion? How did faith help you face today’s challenges? In what way were you dependable? honest? generous? humble?”2

Using words to encourage our children to keep up the good work they are doing are more comforting, motivating and encouraging than placing a label such as ‘smart’ on them. They will find self-worth in just being who they are and giving their own best effort. This will help them be more successful in all areas of their lives.

1 – New York Magazine, February 11, 2007 by Po Bronson. For the rest of the article click here.

2 – ‘What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be’  – April 2011 by Lynn G. Robbins. For the rest of the article click here.

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