🍷 opinion / 👶 motherhood

why I stopped calling my child smart—and why you should too

why i stopped calling my child smart

When Pumpkin was still a young toddler, every now and then she would surprise me by labeling a color or identifying her own nose.

My reaction?

“Good girl! So smart!”

I’d then receive a proud grin in response.

Fast forward to just before the beginning of her preschool days. There she’d be, fiercely driving her favorite purple crayon across a white expanse of paper or counting to twenty like I’d taught her.

“Good girl! So smart!”

Her reaction? A shy smile—if she even looked up at all.

I would just assume she hadn’t heard me.

Anytime she showed off an accomplishment, I felt genuine pride and wanted to express it. It seemed natural to praise her intelligence, because, well, she was smart…right?

Then I ran across this article that, in a nutshell, explained the difference between praising a child’s intelligence and talents and praising his or her efforts.

Kids whose intelligence is praised are more likely to shun challenges they feel they cannot overcome for fear of failure. They have been told they are “smart”, so any possibility that this could be contradicted injects fear into the child.


ANYTIME SHE SHOWED OFF AN ACCOMPLISHMENT, I FELT GENUINE PRIDE AND WANTED TO EXPRESS IT. IT SEEMED NATURAL TO PRAISE HER INTELLIGENCE, BECAUSE, WELL, SHE WAS SMART…RIGHT?


Conversely, children who have praised for their effort in performing a task are more likely to try new things and get up again if they fall. They know the more effort they put in, the more likely it is they will achieve their goals, even if they don’t succeed the first time around.

I began to reevaluate how I praise both Pumpkin and Peanut. Instead of saying “So smart!” I replaced that with “Good effort” or “I like the way you did that.” Even better, praise should contain specifics whenever possible, so the child knows why she’s being praised. “I like the way you used these blocks to build your tower” works better than “Great job on your tower”.

After implementing these changes, I’ve noticed big differences in how Pumpkin receives my praise of her. Instead of being seemingly uninterested in my Smart Girl Praise, she is truly happy to hear how her efforts contributed to her success and eager to do more. She is more likely to try new things (unlike before) and isn’t fazed when she doesn’t glue something straight on the paper or when her tower tumbles to the ground.

She knows she can always succeed by putting in more effort to build bigger and better towers than the ones before.


How do your kids react when you praise them? How did you react to praise when you were younger?



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21 thoughts on “why I stopped calling my child smart—and why you should too

  1. Great points raised and I really enjoyed reading the article. I try to remember to praise my daughters efforts rather than the outcome. I do praise my daughter for her love of challenging herself – particularly physically. The other day my daughter said something about using her ‘thinking muscle’ – it didn’t come from me so I’m guessing her new teacher – it’s a great description, and one I will use when she is trying to figure something out.

  2. While I do agree that praising effort is more rewarding than praising the outcome (intelligence) I would argue that both of these is better than showering words of affection due to how ‘cute’ ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’ your child is. It is so much better to tell your child their worth does not stem from their appearance – and I think that any other compliments will push this in the right direction 🙂

    • Thank you for making this point. It’s important not to be conditional in praise, in matters of mere appearance. If a child feels they are only “acceptable” when they look perfect, it can do a lot of damage. But, I must confess, I do tell my girls they are beautiful, first thing when they wake up 🙂

  3. Wow, parenting is such a challenge at times, especially when you want to be so good at it. I praise and thank my children all the time. Sometimes I wonder if I kiss/hug them too much, or shower them with too many compliments. This post made me evaluate my actions. I think I’m on the right path ;). I love praising for efforts. My child knows he’s smart, along with all the other children who have a brain, the important part is using it… that’s where my praise comes in.

  4. Excellent advice. I think as parents we get in trouble in labeling children anything, whether smart, bad, or good. I love your suggestions, focusing on the “how” of what they are doing than the “who” they are for that moment 🙂

    • I used to think that saying my kids were “smart” was enough to praise them, until I read that article and realized that Pumpkin was not responding in the best possible way. It was already happening but I had no idea until my eyes were opened to it. I sure am glad I caught it early! 🙂

  5. As someone who grew up constantly praised by adults for being smart and knowing big words – and succeeding at high school without any effort, when I got to university and discovered that I was no longer the “smartest” girl in the room it really affected me. For my entire first year, I questioned the validity as a person because I didn’t have those adjectives associated with me anymore. I wish I had been praised for being hard-working, so you’re definitely doing a good thing here 🙂

  6. I was frequently told I was smart by some of my teachers and it was extremely awkward. I didn’t feel so smart when I went into a different classroom and wasn’t catching on quite so well. Math, science, and technology came easy to me, but I had to work like crazy on everything else to keep up with my peers. I wish I hadn’t had the weight of the label.

    I do try to praise my son specifically and based on what he’s done. It’s hard sometimes. I frequently find myself being generic simply because I’m out of the mental energy to formulate true feedback. I have no idea how I would get through my day if I ran out of coffee.

    • Yes! I forgot to cover how to avoid being less generic. Probably because I’m still trying to figure it out too. I’m trying to stock up on phrases I can use when it hurts my brain to think too hard. 😉 And I hear you on the coffee!

  7. Maybe there’s truth in the idea that we shouldn’t attach our inherent qualities/our value to our performance. If we look at what a child *does* and say, “wow, you’re so smart,” do we turn around around call our child “dumb” when they don’t perform as well on something else? Of course not. I think what your post is implicitly getting at is that we need to separate our evaluation of children’s performance from their value as people. And that is truly important to establish at a young age. How many times have we internally called ourselves “stupid” for poor performance on something? This, unfortunately, is pretty standard in today’s society–and it’s a movement that we need to push against. Especially for parents who are high-achievers. Our kids need to know that they are loved and valued REGARDLESS of how they perform. My two cents. 🙂

    • Yes, you make a really interesting point—of course we don’t call our kids “dumb” if they don’t perform well, but maybe they are calling themselves that on the inside? I shudder at the thought of my kids doing that, although I know I won’t be able to prevent it from happening occasionally. And their value as people should supersede any academic performance, even though doing well in school is certainly important. Thanks again for the great point 🙂

  8. My one and half year whenever she accomplished something I clap to praise her or sometimes say thank u. now when she can do something she is clapping herself, and praising herself. do not undersatnd is it right or wrong.

    • I’m not really sure, though I feel if the child is old enough to understand the words of praise you are using, it’s good to praise her efforts instead of just intelligence. Kids should be praised; it’s the wording we need to pay attention to. Hope this helps!

  9. So true – such an interesting post. Somewhere along the line of raising my son I wised up to the ‘you’re so smart’ compliment… probably around the time that he started coming home and telling me that he wasn’t so clever. There were ‘much smarter’ kids in the class.

    Around that same time I started studying at university for the first time. I was awarded entrance based on my maturity, not on my academic achievements at school, and I realised that the difference between me and other students was how hard I worked at it. Great grades and awards came with hard work, not with some innate knowledge or ability. So I changed my tune.

    • Sounds like you and your son were a lot sharper than I was! I had many teachers who were pleased with my academic performance and classmates who told me they wished they were as “smart” as me. I wish I had realized earlier that effort is the most important thing regarding achievement. There was always this expectation from teachers that I would ace every test or answer questions correctly. Whenever that didn’t happen (many times!) it was terrifying and almost humiliating for me. I don’t want to make the same mistake with my daughters. I guess as long as we realize it at some point, we can change from there.

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