Why We Should Stop Telling Kids They’re Smart

school_kids11Susan (or Johnny) comes home with a beautiful “A” on their physics test. All circled and with a smiley face. Very proud when they show the grade to their family.  What do you say?

I’d say, “Great job!” “I’m so proud of you.” “You’re so smart!”

Wouldn’t you?

But, in Carol Dweck wonderful little book, Mindset, she startles us by saying, “don’t praise your child’s intelligence.” She believes these kinds of practices like  praising your child’s intelligence or talent are not healthy.

Who would have thought, right?

If your child gets an “A” on a test, and you tell her how great that is, you’re praising her intelligence, complimenting her on how smart she is. BUT, according to Dweck, you’re setting up a situation in which the child associates praise and acceptance with getting a high grade. Instead of praising her “smarts,” Dweck urges us to praise her effort, not the grade. Grades come and go; effort is reliable and constant. A far better friend and indicator of success.

Conversely,  if your child receives a low grade? Obviously as a parent, you don’t love him less, or see the grade as a failure…his failure. But, might the child see it that way? Could she read our body language? Does he know us well enough to know what we really expect; what would make her parents proud?

What has been our message?

Over time, Dweck says, the child praised for his talent or intelligence won’t stretch, take the chances necessary for growth and development, because who would want to risk failing?

Who would want to risk losing the “A,” forfeiting all that praise; no longer to be considered “smart” or “talented”?

Dweck asks us to acknowledge and praise the effort: The willingness to take on the tough challenges. Not the end result. Very difficult in this competitives society where preschoolers are already in competition for admission to Harvard!

For the fun of it, test your responses to these two situations:

A mom is exploring kindergartens with her 5 year-old son, Harold. They’re in the class and Harold looks up at the paintings on the wall and says, “Who painted those ugly pictures?”

As a parent, what would you say? What’s likely your tone of voice?

Later, Harold picks up a toy fire engine. He looks at it and asks rather indignantly, “Who broke this toy?”

Again, what would your reaction be?

In the case of the paintings, this mom said, “Harold, that’s not polite. Those are not ugly paintings and besides, kids like you made them.”

About the toy, could you hear yourself saying,  “Harold, we don’t know anybody here, so what difference does it make who broke the toy?”

Sound familiar?

The kindergarten teacher, on the other hand, told Harold that, yes, some of the pictures were ugly and that was OK. Ugly pictures were welcomed in her class.

She also told Harold that toys are meant to be played with In both cases, and they sometimes break. That’s what happens, and it’s OK.

In both cases, Harold received a Growth-Minded response. From the teacher. Not from mom or dad.

He heard that it was OK if he wasn’t a good painter or good at art. No one was going to judge his work, and he didn’t have to fear failure.

In the second case, Harold heard that if HE broke a toy, he wouldn’t be in trouble.

Toys break.

No blame here!

So, Harold could enjoy the toys, freed from the fear and censure of breaking one, and the restrictions placed on his creativity.

Finally, Dweck points out an interesting experiment.

In one class, students were given exceptional tutoring: guidance on class work, time management, etc. Strategies designed to help the students do well and earn good grades.

Another class was devoted only to retraining the “thought process,” the way they approach and think through challenges and problems. Their attitudes.

Students were encouraged to think differently about success and failure. Or actually, NOT to think about “success and failure.”

The group worked on values including how to approach challenging work, manage expectations, find appropriate attitudes and ENGAGE IN honest self-talk.

Not surprisingly, the second group was more productive, worked more collaboratively, took on more challenges. Importantly, they actually looked forward to the work, not the grade.

Deck firmly believes talent and intelligence are not fixed traits. They can be improved and developed.

When we compare ourselves to someone we perceive as being gifted or talented, and don’t think we can develop the same traits and skills, that’s what she calls the Fixed Mindset.

Believing that everyone is capable of growing, improving and increasing his intelligence is, as she says in her book, the Growth Mindset.

Encouraging a belief in “self” based on effort, attitude, willingness to take risks, allowing “wrongness,” is ALWAYS A more valuable life gift, the power of a Growth Mindset, than aiming for the best grade could ever be.



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True communication and understanding involve inclusion rather than exclusion. Inclusion truly honors that we are all connected, important, and deserving of respect.

Consider that when you encounter challenging situations in your life.

For example, you’re stuck in a horrific traffic jam. Instead of cursing your bad luck and the traffic, take the opportunity to look around. Notice the people. The sky. The other drivers.The dog walkers. Getting  engaged opens your mind, frees your locked, tense self. And when you bring this “Growth or Open Mindset” to the rest of your day, watch how problems resolve.

The store clerk is rude to you.

Instead of “shutting down,” ask her if there was anything you did to upset her, and would she rather you came back?

When we think we know best and disregard the feelings of another person or any living being,  and proceed without invitation, we separate ourselves as “right” and “wrong.”

We create conflict and pain, not resolution and understanding.

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