Why NOT to tell your child they're smart... and 10 things that you can say instead

I love the word smart. I mean, check out the title of my website. I truly believe that all children are smart.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Anonymous (This is commonly attributed to Einstein, although there's some debate about who actually said it!)

We all have different gifts, talents, passions. I love helping a child discover these things in themselves. Sure we want to help our kids behave properly in public, to use manners and good judgement. But helping a child find their life's passion and purpose? I think that's super exciting stuff. Doesn't get much better than that.

All of you smart parents, with all of your smart children, out their trying to figure out how to make this whole learning thing easy and fun? Trying to help your kids find their gifts, talents, passions, purpose? Trying to help them discover the ways that they're "smart"? You're the reason why this site exists.

So I've based my whole website on the word "smart" and now I'm writing a post about how you can't tell your kids they are smart. Wait, what? Awesome, Jenn. Way to be confusing.

In 1998 Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller conducted a study of 5th grade students, investigating the effect of different kinds of praise on performance. They gave a group of students three sets of math problems. After the first set of problems, 1/3 of the students were praised for their ability ("You must be smart at these problems"), 1/3 were praised for their performance ("You must have worked really hard at these problems"), and 1/3 - a control group - didn't receive praise.

Next, all students were given a second set of problems, this time very difficult. After their completion of the problems, they were told they'd done "a lot worse". 

Last, they were all assigned a third set of problems, this time an easy set.

This is where we can see the impact that the kind of praise given has had on student performance. Students who were praised for their ability performed about 25% worse on the 3rd set of problems than they had on the 1st. Students who were praised for their effort performed about 25% better on the 3rd set of problems than they had on the 1st.

Why is this? There have been multiple articles and books published about this, but in short, the kids who were told that they were smart got frustrated after their performance on the 2nd set of problems. They attributed their lack of performance on their intelligence, enjoyed the problem solving less, and were less persistent on the 3rd. The students who were praised for their performance attributed their lack of performance on the 2nd set of problems to not trying hard enough. On the 3rd set of problems, they tried harder, were more persistent, enjoyed the work more, and performed better.

You can read more about this research here, or Carol Dweck's Secret to Raising Smart Kids here.

The thing is, this research shows us that bombarding our kids with the words "you're so smart!" is not helping them to become their best selves. It's actually stifling them.

After hearing "you're so smart" enough, kids start to believe they were just born smart. That they don't have any impact on their intelligence. That they just do things well because it's who they are. That they don't have an impact on their performance. That they don't have to try hard, work hard, strive for better.

And although I believe every child is smart in some way, born with different gifts, I also believe every child needs to work hard to be their best self. We do our kids a disservice when we don't communicate with them the great responsibility that they have to use their talents well.

One of my big jobs as my kids' mom is to make sure my kids know how important they are (how important we ALL are). I need to genuinely praise their efforts and who they are as people, while also impressing upon them the fact that none of us will ever be our best selves without effort.

That's a big job. I'm working at it, and I am not quite sure how I'm going to get there, but I know I'm going to try.

And the first place I'm going to start is by working really hard to stop telling my kids they're smart. When I'm proud of them or excited for them, though, I won't be quiet. I'll tell them! I'm just going to use new words.

So I've brainstormed alternatives to the phrase "you're so smart!" and am trying really hard to use them every time I catch myself being tempted to just praise my son's intelligence. These alternatives encourage the behaviors that we want to see in our children: thinking, reading, researching, instead of just praising their intelligence.

I'm saying things like, "You are a good thinker!", "Wow, you really took your time thinking about that!" and more. I'm using phrases that encourage my son to do the hard work of THINKING and that encourage him to persist and participate in the hard work of thinking more often. I carefully praise him during times when I see him working toward something, researching, remembering.

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