Why I Don’t Tell My Kids That I Think They Are Smart

Don’t get me wrong.   Just because I don’t tell my kids that I think they’re smart doesn’t mean that I think they have low intelligence; quite the opposite is true.  However, if they bring home a great grade or happen to grasp a concept easily, the last thing I say to them is “you’re so smart!”

Does this sound like bad parenting?  Does it sound like their self-esteem could be at risk?  Until a couple of years ago, I would have said yes.

However, I’ve had a profound shift in thinking on this issue because I was introduced to the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist who has been studying, among other things, the negative implications of telling kids that they’re smart.  New York Magazine has a great piece (here) getting into some of the fascinating nuances of the study, but here are the headlines:

Kids who were told they were smart were more likely to rely on their intelligence and discount the importance of effort.  They worried more about keeping up the appearance of being “smart” than trying to learn new skills.  However, if a kid was told that they were doing well because they worked hard, they were more likely to take risks and try increasingly difficult problems.  The group that was praised for being “smart” suddenly worked hard to manage that appearance at the expense of appearing insufficient.  This group quickly developed a fear of failure and did everything to avoid it.  However,  the other group was told that their intelligence was something to be developed through hard work and, as a result, they told increasingly greater risks to learn. When this group made mistakes, they worked hard to learn from them.

The kicker in the story, at least for me, was that there was EXACTLY one comment made about either being “smart” or “working hard.”

Really?  That seems a tad extreme.  When I first read this report, I really questioned the data.   Was it possible that all of the hype about verbal praise (and the associated lift in “self esteem”) could backfire so completely?  I dug a little deeper and learned that it’s not praise that’s the problem; it’s praise for the wrong thing.  No matter how great your raw intelligence is, if you don’t develop the habit of hard work, then your accomplishments will be severely diminished.  If a person doesn’t know how to work hard, the ability to persevere in the face of challenge just won’t happen.

Then I started thinking about all of the “book smart” people I know who struggle to take risks and walked away when the project turned difficult.  I remembered person after person who gave short-shrift to the idea of hard work, only to end up in jobs and situations below their potential.  Upon reflection, the idea of “coasting” on IQ rather than digging in to do the work rang true.  Eventually, I “caught” the pitch. However, the challenge to change our approach felt like changing a grip during the middle of  a round of golf or tennis match; possible, but extremely awkward.

After hearing and wrestling with the idea of changing our approach, Billy and I spent time brainstorming the right way to talk to our kids.  It may sound a little odd to be this strategic with our words (welcome to our oddness!), but maybe some of these exchanges will come in handy with you:

Parent: Why do you think you did well on that test?  Kid: I don’t know. P: Because you studied hard, that’s why!

Kid: I’m never going to get this! Parent: So do you want to give up? K: No… P: So what do you think has to happen? K: I guess I have to practice.

P: Wow!  You really improved on that timed test. Why do you think that happened?  K: Because I practiced so much!

K: That was really easy!  P: Why do you think it was easy?  K: I don’t know.  P: Did you know that before you started Third Grade?  K : No, I don’t think so.  P: Well then, you must have paid attention to the teacher/book/homework.

None of these exchanges require more than an extra sentence or two than what you’d normally say to your child.  The complexity comes not in making the statements, but in being intentional with the plan and deliberate with the words.   We know we’re not going to get our kids to understand perseverance because we’re “smart” parents, but because we’re willing to put in the work.