Parents want their kids to succeed, but did you know that telling your child that he or she is a smart kid can actually have negative results? Here’s what I learned in six years of teaching about how to help every child understand that their ability to be “smart” is within their control.
During my six years of teaching, I regularly heard kids talk about how they were “smart” or “dumb”, or “good” at reading or “bad” at writing. These sorts of comments always bothered me, because my students often discussed their ability as if it was something that they had no control over–as if you’re just born smart, the way you’re born with brown or blonde hair.
I found myself trying over and over to help my students understand the deeply held belief I have that no one is inherently dumb or smart. Sure, there are natural aptitudes for certain things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop skills in other areas. Ultimately, we choose the things that we care about most, we put time and effort into those things, and we get better as we practice.
Ask the “smart” kids in school what they do for fun. I would wager that the vast majority of them would have reading near the top of their lists. Ask the kids who are “good” at school what their secret is? No secret–they actually do their work.
I did an analysis of my students’ grades the last year I taught to search for commonalities among my top performing students. My goal was to help my struggling students to see tangible changes they could make in their own habits to improve their performance. I was shocked by how obvious the results of my unofficial study were. What I found was that ALL of my highest scoring students in every class…
- had no missing work
- had turned in few if any assignments late
- Had met their goals for personal reading (which was a significant portion of their grades).
Now, I realize there are a lot of lurking variables in my unofficial “study”, but I think the conclusion is still valid: If you want to succeed, all it takes is deciding that it’s worth your time and effort, and then going to work.
My first year teaching, I had a student who really struggled with his grades. He was barely getting a D in the class, and I had started working with him after school to get caught up. One day, after he’d been coming for awhile (and seeing his grade improve, I might add), he looked up from his desk, and said to me, “Hey, Miss W., do you know what I figured out?”
“What?” I asked him, expecting to hear something related to the assignment he was scribbling away on.
Then, with complete sincerity, as if he’d honestly never thought of it before, he revealed, “If you do your work, you get good grades.”
This was January, mind you. Of his grade year. How is it possible that he’d gone through seven and a half years of school and never understood this? Up until that point, success in school for him was a matter of luck. If you were smart, you did well. If you were dumb, well, there wasn’t much you could do to succeed. But, in that moment, he realized that he was the master of his fate. And, after that, he became a student who typically got Bs instead of Ds.
So what do we do about this false and destructive perception?
Easy solution, right? We just tell our kids they are smart, and they’ll believe us, so they’ll work hard, and then they will be smart. No problem.
The truth is, telling someone they are smart can be as bad as telling them they are dumb. There is an article I read years ago that has stuck with me in which the author discusses a study of two groups of fifth grade students:
After [taking a test], one group was told, “You must be smart.” The other group was told, “You must have worked hard.”
When a second test was offered to the students, they were told that it would be harder and that they didn’t have to take it. Ninety percent of the kids who heard “you must be smart” opted not to take it. Why? They feared proving that the affirmation may be false. Of the second group, most of the kids chose to take the test, and while they didn’t do well, Dweck’s researchers heard them whispering under their breath, “This is my favorite test.” They loved the challenge.
Finally, a third test was given, equally as hard as the first one. The result? The first group of students who were told they were smart, did worse. The second group did 30% better.
Dweck concludes that our affirmation of kids must target factors in their control. When we say “you must have worked hard,” we are praising effort, which they have full control over. It tends to elicit more effort. When we praise smarts, it may provide a little confidence at first but ultimately causes a child to work less. They say to themselves, “If it doesn’t come easy, I don’t want to do it.”
So here’s my plea: let’s teach our kids (and ourselves) that “being smart” is something you can control, that it’s really about knowing what’s worth your time and effort and understanding that it takes effort to succeed at most anything that is worthwhile…and then going to work.
Even Albert Einstein said, “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
Perhaps we (Ol’ Al included) need to change our thinking to realize that sticking with things and pushing through the tough stuff IS smart.
If we treat being smart as a skill to develop rather than an inherent characteristic, we grant ourselves and others the freedom and confidence to take control of our achievements…and thereby reach for things we didn’t know were within our grasp.
Dream big. Now, there’s a smart idea.
I regularly link up here.
That is a great post. Thanks for sharing!!
I learned this the hard way with my 5th grade son. He was told all through elementary that he was so smart, and then when he didn’t get into the national honor society for elementary age kids, he flipped out saying how dumb he was and how it was all a lie. It broke my heart because the only reason he wasn’t nominated for nehs was because of adhd behavioral issues… Which is a whole ‘nother can of worms. lol
Thanks for posting this!
I taught several middle school honors English classes, and I saw it ESPECIALLY in those kids who had been told they were smart or gifted. They had such performance anxiety that some of them even resorted to cheating because they were so scared of not living up to the expectations people had of the them (or that they perceived). On the flip side, there were lots of kids like how you describe your son…intelligent but who struggle with attention and organization. For those kids, setting up a system that they could really maintain and control helped them succeed. “School skills” and “intelligence” are definitely two different things. Thanks for sharing.
I heard of that study a few years ago and started consciously praising effort more often. I still sometimes praise smarts, because I was always told how smart I am am and I’ve never questioned my intelligence. If I don’t know something, i feel comfortable say so, because I know I am capable of grasping anything. (I don’t have that esteem in other areas of my life.) We do constantly talk about effort and hard work being the path to success though.
I still tell my kids they are smart, too; I just try to make the praise specific. Also, I try to make sure that they make the connection between the effort they put into something and the result they achieved. Sounds like your kids are getting a dose of both, which is awesome!
I love this; you’re exactly right! Thanks for sharing.
What a great perspective! I totally agree that we should be teaching our children that they can be smart with work! Everything in life takes work and it’s a great concept to teach our young ones!
Thanks, Amanda. I feel like it’s an empowering idea to be in charge of how intelligent you are and become. 🙂
Great post, and SO important! I think we’re so conditioned to “label” that it comes much more naturally than thinking about the message we’re sending. Praising effort and persistence seems much less tangible, but has such lasting effect. Thanks for reminding me of this!
Thanks for your thoughts, Ceci. I have to constantly remind myself of this, too, because as you said, we’re so conditioned to just throw the label out there.
Love this post. It’s definitely about working hard.
This is a terrific article – we inadvertently do this with my son, and I have to remember that the message should be to work hard! Thanks so much for sharing.
YES! It’s hard on children when they’re labelled (even when the labels seem good or positive)! Smart, cute, adorable, etc… it puts pressure on.
I definitely agree on changing this approach – and yes, pushing through the tough stuff and sticking to things even when their challenging IS smart.
Thanks for sharing (and for linking up to the #SHINEbloghop).
Wishing you a lovely day.
Thanks, Jennifer. I’ve been working a lot with my preschooler on the idea that we can do hard things. It’s okay to struggle, and it’s okay to make mistakes. We just keep trying and we slowly get better (like Daniel Tiger says). 🙂
Quite thought provoking. As someone who has always put forth the effort (in most everything) and also been told or deemed ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’, I sometimes struggle with the reality that things aren’t always as easy for others (even within my family). But, now that I’m a Mother, I do think it’s important to be thoughtful about what, how, and when I say things to my children in this area. Thanks again!
Thanks, Kendall. As I learn more and more about motherhood, I realize how much the things I say affect my kids. They pick up on EVERYTHING, and it makes me really want to be careful about the message I send to them through what I say.