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 Bronson 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.)