Don’t Tell Kids They’re ‘Smart’

It turns out that the way we praise children is incredibly important and easy to get wrong.

Counterintuitively, when your little sister comes home with an incredible math score, saying “Congratulations! You’re so smart!” Could be worse than saying nothing at all.

This has nothing to do with whether you should praise good results (you should) and everything to do with how to praise good results.

An experiment which famously highlighted the importance of this was conducted in America with a large group of 10 year olds who were put through a series of tests.

First the children were all given an easy test which they all completed comfortably.

Every child was praised for their results on the test, but in slightly different ways;

Half the children (Group A), were praised on their ability;

“Congratulations! You must be really smart!”

The other half (Group B), were praised on their effort,

“Congratulations! You must have worked really hard.”

For the second test, the children were offered a choice. They could take a challenging test which promised a learning opportunity, or an easy test which they would almost certainly do well on.

Here’s where the numbers start to get interesting.

67% of the Group A opted for the easy test, but 92% of Group B decided to take on the more difficult test.

The brains behind the experiment, Dr Carol Dweck explains that the cause for this is how the different forms of praise are interpreted and internalised.

Kids who are repeatedly told that their success has to do with their ability become risk averse and terrified of failure.

They become afraid of failure because they’ve come to understand that people value and admire their abilities, the fact that they’re good at things.

For these kids, to try and fail is to try and feel worthless.

On the contrary, kids who are encouraged for trying their best, for being gritty in the face of a challenge, know that they’ll be celebrated as long as they work hard.

Their value is tied to their ability to work, not their ability to avoid failure.

For the third test, all students were given the same incredibly challenging test. The test was so difficult that most were going to fail.

Again, there was a huge discrepancy between the groups.

The Group A children were more frustrated by the test, and gave up sooner than those in group B.

The Group B kids didn’t just work harder and longer on average than their Group A counterparts, but they were recorded to enjoy the test more.

A final test was given to the groups which was of equal difficulty to the first test which they all received before any praise was given.

The kids who were praised on their ability performed 20% worse that they did on the first test, while the group praised on effort improved by nearly 30%.

This means that there was almost a 50% difference in final test scores between Group A and B.

If a kid believes that they’re only valuable because they’re special in some way that they aren’t being encouraged to connect to their effort, they will go out of their way to avoid situations where they might be ‘exposed’ as someone who fails sometimes.

They develop a fixed mindset which will limit the potential of their talents.

When kids perceive their value based on how hard they work, they embrace opportunities to learn. They make ruckus, they learn and they grow.

This is what Dweck calls a growth mindset, the idea is that your value should be determined by your ability to grow, not your ability to succeed.

Carol Dweck’s research on this subject is exhaustive and intriguing, and the implications are not in any way reserved for kids.

The difference between a fixed and a growth mindset is the difference between;

If I fail, what will people think?


If I fail, what could I learn?

The accumulation of Dweck’s research is captured in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Definitely worth a look.

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