If there is one thing parents try to instill in their kids it’s self confidence. Through encouragement and rewards. children are urged to try harder and to achieve more than those before them. One of the most common things that are uttered from a caretaker’s mouth is, “You’re smart” with nothing more than the desire to rally behind the child to keep on doing what they’re doing. But studies are showing that this might actually impede their progress.

Dr. Carol Dweck, through Columbia University, did a study on the effects of praise on 400 students in grades 4 and 5. The researchers had the children perform IQ tests consisting of a variety of puzzles – puzzles that were designed to be easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the children finished the test the researchers told each student their score and then gave them a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence: “You must be smart at this”. The others were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard”. The use of just a single line was so that the researchers could determine how sensitive children are; they had a hunch that one line was all it would take. The second test was a choice – either a test that would be harder, but they would learn a lot from attempting it, or they could have another test as easy as the first. Interestingly, 90% of the kids that were praised for their effort chose the harder test; the ones praised for their intelligence opted for the easy one. The kids that were told that they were smart decided that they would rather look smart than be challenged!

A third test was given that was 2 grades ahead – so everyone failed. The final test was as easy as the first, but the children who were praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score, by about 30%. Those who had been told they were smart did worse than they had in the beginning – by about 20%. What did the researchers learn? “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” explained Dweck, “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

How many people are surprised to see their “bright”, “smart”, “exceptional” kids start failing and in a lot of cases dropping out of school? How many teacher-parent interviews start with the catch phrase, “They are not living up to their potential”?
 It’s amazing to think that by innocently telling a child that you believe they are smart is actually telling them, “you don’t need to put out any effort” and when they fail at something they start doubting who they truly are: “I guess I’m dumb”, “Why bother trying?”. An interesting note for parents and caretakers of the next generation, a shift from, “You’re smart” to “I like how you keep trying” or “Good job”, may make the difference in grades, but more importantly in a child’s self-esteem.

There’s also an idea that we should consider talents beyond looks or grades. Consider what your children get in trouble for. Do they daydream? Talk too much? Ask too many questions? Goof around too much? Are too strong willed? Explore beyond what you think is safe? These are all indications of their purpose in life so they should be encouraged to follow what comes naturally to them. Or at the very least, acknowledge their gifts, even letting them know you don’t like them,  but that you recognize them as gifts and they are good at them. In our house when the kids are being goofy, we say, “Gosh, you’re weird!” and they smile and retort, “Thank you!”

About the Author

Stephanie Herrera is a comedian, writer, producer, teacher, singer, actor, mother of 4, and shallow philosopher. She runs the Durham Improv & Acting Studio in Oshawa, Canada, is a professor at Durham and Fleming Colleges, and is an award winning performer.  www.durhamimprov.com / www.stephanieherrera.com / info@durhamimprov.com / (647) 899-3342  Durham Improv Group and Business pages can be found on Facebook and follow @durhamimprov & @antimommy