You know you’re not supposed to tell children they are smart!? I think I knew that, but I’ve missed the mark numerous times. In short, tell someone they’re smart and they’ll be afraid to disappoint you, leading them to stop challenging themselves; tell them you are amazed by their effort and you teach them to never quit, take on new challenges and be resilient.
Parents, Teachers and Coaches should all understand the importance of praising effort as opposed to talent. Most people may say they know that, but knowing it, practicing it, living it and doing it well are very different. I was recently reading Bounce by Matthew Syed and he references some groundbreaking research performed by Carol Dweck a professor at Stanford and author of Mindset. Dweck used the terminology fixed mind-set and growth mind-set: A Fixed Mind-set being someone who fundamentally believes intelligence is innate or you’re either born with it or you’re not and a Growth Mind-set meaning intelligence can be learned and gained through work and effort. She performed a study on ~300 5th graders. First she gave them a list of questions to help her classify them as fixed or growth mind-set. Then they all worked on a series of progressively more challenging problems. Quoting Dweck “We saw that students in the helpless (fixed mind-set) group blamed their intelligence when they hit failure. What did the students in the mastery-oriented (growth mind-set) group blame? The answer, which surprised us, was they did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for the failures. In fact, they didn’t even seem to consider themselves to be failing…” She went on to describe how the children in the growth mind-set were motivated to solve the challenging problems and even developed new strategies. The fixed mind-set group did not perform, or even stopped performing in the face of adversity. When we say “you are so smart”, or after scoring a goal “you’re so good…or are such a great athlete”, or upon seeing their art project “you are a natural”, we are cultivating the fixed mind-set. We are teaching them that they didn’t need to work for that accomplishment; they were born with the ability. On the contrary, responses such as “doing your homework every night really paid off” or “all those hours of practice you put in are really showing” or even responding with a question on the art “how did you decide on that color combination?” instill a different mind-set, attitude and motivation to continue to improve. Here is a great article from the NY Times, written by Po Bronson, How Not to Talk to Your Kids. An excerpt: “When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…But growing body of research strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.” Ashley Merryman sums it up as praise what someone does, not who they are in this Primal Blue Print Podcast. She is the co-author of NurtureShock, along with Po, mentioned above. She also talks briefly about whether its ok to tell girls they are pretty; clearly don’t want to do it a lot, but a sometimes may be ok…interesting! I’m sure I’ll continue to tell my girls they are beautiful, but maybe not as much:) and of course, need to work on praising effort!