“You’re So Smart!” Could Be the Worst Thing You Could Say to Your Child.

As the parents of five children, my wife and I have had the opportunity to give feedback for nearly three decades now. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I may have screwed up in many cases.

Have you ever praised your child, or someone else with the words, “You’re so smart!”? If so you may have inadvertently been encouraging them to quit trying to learn.

In a recent class I attended on the science and psychology of self-improvement, the teacher pointed to the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She and others had done various studies analyzing the effects of two types of praise on children, adolescents and even college students.

Two Types of Praise Foster Two Very Different Mindsets

There are two general belief systems about intelligence; fixed and malleable. When we tell a child, or anyone for that matter that they are “smart” we are planting the seeds of a fixed intelligence philosophy in the mind of that person. What does that mean? A fixed mindset implies:

  • Intelligence is fixed
  • You either have it or you don’t
  • There’s nothing you can do about it.

The outcome of this belief is that people quit trying if things become difficult, because apparently they don’t have what it takes to figure it out.

Praising a person’s intelligence reinforces this belief process with the regrettable results that it brings. People who subscribe to this belief

  • Prefer easy problems over difficult ones
  • Give up easily if faced with problems that take more effort than they have had to use previously
  • Regress to lower levels of performance after being faced with a more difficult task that they gave up on

Praising for effort or process on the other hand implies that it is not a persons intellect that won the day, but rather the effort they put into the process.

Examples of praising for effort would be:

“You studied hard for that exam, and the results show!”

“You put a lot of effort into what you do. I admire you for your persistence.”

What is Your Mindset? How Do You Praise Yourself?

In light of this, I found myself questioning my own beliefs about fixed or malleable intelligence. In the world of self-improvement people are constantly put forward as examples to follow. Naturally we compare ourselves to them. If we adhere to the fixed intelligence, or fixed capacity theory, then we may be envious or jealous, but we won’t look at their success as an opportunity for our own growth.

It’s easy to look at someone and think, “They are so much better at X, Y, or Z than I ever will be.” Thoughts like this reinforce that “they” have something (ability, skill, courage, etc.) that I don’t, and there may not be anything I can do about it.

If we realize that they probably applied themselves through a sustained consistent process that we are also capable of replicating, we would look at it as an opportunity to learn from how they got to the point of success that we are admiring.

If you ever find yourself telling a child, or anyone else something along the lines of, “You are so smart” then realize that it may be a reflection of your own fixed intelligence belief. The good news is that you can change that too.

When we realize that even if something is difficult, we are still capable of learning it, perhaps with some sustained effort, and possibly with the help of a teacher or mentor, we open our lives to continued growth, development and improvement.

The next time you’re tempted to tell someone how smart they are, stop and find a way to rephrase it, so that you are recognizing their effort rather than their outcome.

Take this ten-question quiz to see how you’re doing overall on your own personal development.