By Candice LeSueur
According to a Columbia University survey, 85 percent of American parents feel it is important to tell their kids they are smart.
It seems honorable, but is praising your children for their intelligence really the smart thing to do in the long run?
Research has shown that praising children for their effort will help them become more successful than praising them for their intelligence.
When Carol Dweck, the woman who pioneered the research on the effects of praise, was a professor at Columbia, she and her team studied the effects of praise on 400 New York fifth-graders. Children would be taken out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles that were easy enough for all the children to do at least somewhat well. After the first round, the researchers would tell each student their score and then give them a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some students were told after receiving their score, “You must be smart at this,” and to the other students: “You must have worked really hard,” the first group being praised for their intelligence and the latter for their effort.
For the second round, the students were given a choice to complete one out of two tests–one being more difficult than the other. The researchers told the kids they would learn a lot from attempting the first choice of puzzles because they were harder, and that the second choice of puzzles were just as easy as the ones they completed in the first round of the study. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles, and for those students who were praised for their intelligence, the majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the comfortable route.
So how do we correctly praise our children for their effort? To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific and sincere. For example, if your child gets distracted easily, you can praise them for their concentration in those moments where you do find them staying focused on a task. Or the effort they showed when they worked through that rough spot of their song when they were practicing their instrument. This will help them gain confidence in their efforts, and they will be more willing to take on difficult tasks.
When talking about children who have been praised for their intelligence, journalist and author Po Bronson noted that “a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.”
We need to help children gain more confidence in their abilities. As we have learned, this is not done by putting intelligent labels on them. We need to give them positive reinforcement according to their efforts. And as they continue, they will become more resilient and increase their level of endurance. Bronson stated, “The brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter.”