It begins early and with the best of intentions: A parent asks his or her toddler to find the red car in a picture book. When the child happily points to the correct vehicle, the parent may exclaim, “Yes! That's right. You're so smart!”
The problem with praising kids for being smart is that it tends to encourage kids to give up on challenging projects, rather than persisting, as kids praised for their hard work are better able to do.
And the effects may be even more damaging. Kids who have been told they’re smart also tend to cheat more, two recent studies have found.
“It's common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” said Gail Heyman, the author of the first study, published in Psychological Science, in a news release. “Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids' achievement motivation, it's still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well.”
Praising children for their intelligence seems to undermine kids’ motivation for achievement, whereas praising their hard work does not.
She and her colleagues had 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds play a numbers guessing game in which they had an easy opportunity to cheat. They praised one group for their performance; another for their intelligence. Kids in the control group didn’t receive any praise.
Then, in the middle of the session, the researcher left the room for a minute, and the kids’ behavior was secretly monitored. Children who were praised for their intelligence were more likely to sneak a peak at the cards than the kids who were praised for their performance.
Even subtler kinds of praise for intelligence can damage motivation. The same group of researchers found similar results in a study published in Developmental Science. This time, kids were told they had a reputation for intelligence or for something random — cleanliness. Again, a control group wasn’t told anything. Those who were told they had a reputation for being smart cheated more than kids in either of the other two groups.
Both studies suggest that if you’re a caregiver trying to help shape your kid’s attitude about his or her own abilities, you don't want to focus on intelligence. As coauthor of the two studies, Kang Lee, put it, “We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”
Praising children for their intelligence seems to undermine kids’ motivation for achievement, the studies show, whereas praising hard work (or cleanliness) does not. It builds nicely on the original studies showing that praising hard work seems to build grit and stick-to-itiveness when the inevitable mistakes crop up, while kids praised for their intelligence tend to give up or look for an easy way to prevail, such as by cheating.
So praise your child's efforts and skip the intelligence-praising, as tempting as it may be. Send the message that it's your kids’ hard work and ability to try, try again that matters.
The studies were carried out by researchers at the University of California San Diego, the University of Toronto, and Hangzhou Normal and Zhejang Normal Universities in China.