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Boosting Self-Esteem or Hindering Initiative?

“What a smart girl you are!” a mom beams at her toddler as she is putting a plastic lever into a water pool at a science museum play room. She expertly stops up water, creating a little dam as water then gushes down a new pathway for a little boat to glide down and end up in the pond at the bottom with all the other boats.

“How clever you are—way to go!” she says again, giving her daughter a kiss.

Sound familiar? Every day moms hear and say these sorts of statements to their children while at playgrounds, museums, libraries, etc. Teachers may also acknowledge students at school for getting something right. Seems innocent enough. Especially if you ever had teachers or parents who only found fault in you—surely a little positive reinforcement has to be good for a child’s morale—right? Well, not exactly. It all depends on how a child is praised and what for, according to research from Stanford University. Otherwise, lavishing praise can actually hinder a child’s motivation, instead of fostering courage and their desire to strive to achieve.

It is a common notion among parents that praising a child for their intellect builds self-esteem and motivation. But Carol S. Dweck, PhD, a Stanford University psychologist and professor, may have proven otherwise.

For decades, Dweck has been studying why children develop self conceptions of intelligence, and how these differing conceptions affect their motivation and personality. In a new study, published in the scientific journal, Child Development, Dweck and her colleagues discovered that students who believe they are born with a fixed intelligence level—a perception largely created by teacher and parent praise—are more likely to shirk from challenge and suffer academically than those who believe intelligence can be learned.   

“The most motivated and resilient students are not the ones who think they have a lot of fixed or innate intelligence. Instead, the most motivated and resilient students are the ones who believe that their abilities can be developed through their effort and learning,” explains Dweck.

This may not seem like a groundbreaking finding, but it really is. We often think of smarts as something we’re either born with or without, but in fact, our success (and our children’s) may have more to do with how we perceive intelligence, rather the amount supposedly contained in our grey matter. How many times have you told your child, “You’re so smart. Great job.” Or likewise, how many times do you find yourself bragging about your child’s intellect to others? Part of our perception of whom and what is smart has to do with parental praise.  

Children praised for their smarts develop what Dweck describes as the “fixed entity view” of intelligence. This view holds that intelligence is static, predetermined at birth and cannot be changed.

“Children who believe their intelligence is fixed become overly concerned with how smart they are. Their goal is to look smart and, at all costs, avoid looking dumb. For this reason, they will often avoid challenges because they fear that struggling or making mistakes will make them look dumb,” reiterates Dweck.

Alternatively, children praised for effort develop a “growth mindset” of intelligence. This view contends that intelligence depends on the effort we expend and that the harder we work, the more intelligent we may become.

“Children who believe their intelligence is something they can develop focus on the goal of learning. Effort and learning are what make them smarter and they exert effort and pursue learning wholeheartedly,” the psychologist explains.

Taking the Easy Way Out
But are parents’ and teachers’ seemingly benevolent accolades to blame for different scholastic outcomes?

According to one of Dweck’s studies with 400 fifth graders, they are. The study, conducted in 1998 by Columbia University researchers, randomized students to two groups. These groups were then asked to solve a series of puzzles, none of them too challenging for their age level. When the kids finished the puzzles, researchers gave the students their score and a line of praise. One group received praise that was directed at their intelligence: “you must be smart at this;” the other group received praise that was directed at their effort: “you must have worked really hard.”

The students were then given a choice on the second round of tests: a more difficult puzzle from which they’ll learn a lot, or an easy test, much like the first they’d taken. Ninety percent of the students praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle. But for the students praised for their intelligence, the majority chose the easy test. In essence, the “smart kids” took the easy way out.

Heaping praise on children for intelligence can also have other consequences beyond hindering performance in school. It may also make children less resilient.

Kids who believe their smarts to be fixed may have a harder time adapting to setbacks and failures.

“They take setbacks and failures as a sign that their intelligence is deficient and they get defensive and discouraged,” notes Dweck.

Alternatively, kids with a growth mindset are more able to face difficulties because they believe in the mind’s ability to grow and change.

“They step up their effort, try new study strategies, seek help, and for these reasons, often thrive in the face of adversity,” explains Dweck.

To test whether the growth mindset can be taught, Dweck and colleagues took their ideas to an underachieving middle school in East Harlem in 2005. The researchers’ goal was to improve math scores and they began by randomly splitting up a group of one hundred students. The control group received study skills, while the experimental group received study skills in addition to a module designed to show that the brain forms new neurons when it is challenged, and that it can grow and adapt, just like a muscle.

The results, published in the January 2007 issue of Child Development, were striking. Teachers were able to point out which students received the brain module because their study habits and grades improved.

Dweck found that “after our workshop, students who learned a growth mindset became more resilient. Once they knew that they could strengthen their brains and grow new connections by working hard and learning, they were willing (and sometimes even eager) to do so. Teachers now singled out these students as more focused on effort and learning even when the work was hard for them.”

By stressing the malleable view of intelligence, students were put in control of their learning and realized they could do better if they tried. If simply teaching students that their intelligence can grow and increase empowered them to do better in school, then these results may herald a new way of reaching out to students on all ends of the learning spectrum.

Many parents and teachers reading this may be wondering, “if I can’t tell children they’re smart, what should I tell them?”

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Dweck describes three rules for encouraging a malleable mindset:

  • Teach children that the brain can grow, adapt, and likes to be exercised. The more we challenge it, by working hard and examining mistakes, the more we exercise the brain.
  • Don’t compliment kids solely on intelligence. Instead, focus on a child’s efforts, strategies, persistence, and progress.
  • Help kids see that challenges and learning can be fun, and that we really can learn from our mistakes, not fear what other people will think of them. Don’t reward tasks that are accomplished too easily, which leads children to think they’re smart only when things are quick and easy. Instead, parents can acknowledge the performance, but say, “Oops, I’m sorry we wasted your time. Let’s find something more challenging that you can learn from.”

Tara Sommerson, an early learning teacher at Southbank International School in London, extends these ideas beyond the learning process. For instance, if two children are arguing over a toy but then decide to take turns, she would compliment them by saying, “I like how you solved your problem by taking turns.”

“It’s important to tell children what they did that was so good, particularly stressing the thinking process they engaged in, not just the end product,” says Ms. Sommerson. 

For most parents, not giving smart kudos will surely take some getting used to. But for schools which have taken part in Dweck’s research—and reaped the beneficial results—it’s a lesson well worth implementing. What do you think? Are you inspired to change the way you compliment your children now?

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