The Cost of Praising Intelligence

It’s common sense that a good parent should frequently seize opportunities to tell his/her children that they are “smart,” isn’t it?

Not so fast.

Po Bronsoncub scout has written a fascinating article in New York Magazine, entitled, How Not To Talk To Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. The article describes a recent study of 400 New York City fifth graders that shows that children who are repeatedly told they are “smart” shy away from challenges where there’s even a slight risk they might not succeed. On the other hand, kids who are consistently praised for their hard work or effort are more self-confident, more inclined to seek out challenging projects despite the possibility of failure, and less inhibited by concerns about how their work will be “graded” in the end.

Carol Dweck, the psychologist who led the study, writes, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” She continues, “Emphasizing effort gives children a variable that they can control. 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.”

It turns out that teaching kids that their innate intelligence is the key to their success actually sends a damaging message to them by diminishing the importance of effort – which is, in fact, the ONLY thing over which they have any control!

Clearly, this study is hugely important for all parents, teachers, and coaches. And it reminds me of two baseball t-shirts my oldest son owns. One says, “Just give me the ball and let me do the rest.” The other t-shirt says, “Champions are made in the off-season.” One motto emphasizes ability, the other practice and effort.

I never did like that “give me the ball” t-shirt, with its arrogant, anti-teamwork, talent-focused slogan. And now that I’ve read about the impact of highlighting effort,  I love that “champions” t-shirt all the more!

(By the way, the cub scout in that photo is not my son – I actually have no idea who that is.)

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3 responses to “The Cost of Praising Intelligence

  1. Hmm! That’s good for thought. I got that “way to be smart” message from kindergarten through high school, probably because I am a good test-taker. But the only thing it taught me was that I could make it by the seat of my pants with minimal effort. Bad message! That’s one of the big downsides of standardized testing. Standardized testing does NOT measure or reward effort, discipline, or organizational/time management skills. Glad I’m not a public school teacher, because I’d be extremely frustrated by “No Child Left Behind” and the trend toward even more standardized testing. Wrong direction!

  2. Mr. Crawford: Re. “Rules and Results.”
    The point, because I know you, is legitimate. But process, protocol, tranparency, patience and persuasion build confidence, trust, gain adherents and often change the rules magnifying sought results.
    My friend George W. Bush likes to do away with protocols, like respect for the balance of power; he writes signing statements on legislation he disagrees with, saying in effect, “I’ll do it my way, the devil with yours:” he breaks the law, agreeing with Nixon, “Whatever the Presdient does is legal.”
    The breaking of protocols is frequently the practice of what we in the institutional business call, “loose canons,” they can bring creativity, imagination, new vision – of course. But they can also break up and put the brakes on more smoothly functioning teams, causing static and chaff in the gears. Careful.
    I do like Crawdaddy Cove.
    Cordially yours,
    The Old Man
    P.S. The Cost of Praising Intelligence – a shrewd insight and the T-shirt illustration: excellent!

  3. Rob, my friend,

    found myself with moments on my hand as I tried to add my name to the lidst of songwriters on Wikapedia and stumbled across past blogs. they are insightful, quirky, creative, thoughtful, and filled with a sense of respect for your kids, your friends, your co-workers, and people who work at what they do. All good.

    Just thought I’d let you know. Time to write some songs.

    keep on blogging. the world needs you.

    Dan

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