The Problem with Telling Kids that they are “Smart”

May 25, 2019 - 9 minutes read

Thank you to our school counsellor Mr. Broughton for being our guest blogger! His post is a good reminder of the impact well-intentioned praise has on our children.  

You’re so smart.

You’re lucky to be so smart!

Wow, what a smart kid you are!

Telling children that they are smart is damaging. It’s counter-intuitive for most of us – what could possibly be wrong with telling a child something positive about themselves? Shouldn’t it build their confidence and sense of self, make them feel more capable to face the challenges that life presents? What’s the possible downside of that?

As it turns out, there’s significant downside.

Research around the importance of cultivating a growth mindset of intelligence, rather than a fixed mindset, has been ongoing for the past decade. The basic idea is a profound questioning of the idea of ‘intelligence’ generally. Viewing intelligence as ‘fixed’ – something that one has, or doesn’t – removes a sense of control for kids. Perhaps it’s genes, or upbringing, or just a lucky chance that one is ‘smart’. But whatever the case, it’s not about working hard and trying one’s best.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, purports that intelligence, and learning generally, is something that is the result of hard work. Sure, some things will come easier to us than others, but in the end, we are in control of what we accomplish. It’s us who does it – not our genes, not some immutable characteristic of ourselves, or anything else beyond our control. It’s our sweat that drives our success.

When a fixed view is internalized, success and failure in learning settings become meaningless. If a child is able to do something, this is a result of their intelligence, not their effort. They didn’t do anything to achieve this, they’re just lucky that they were smart enough. And – more ominously – if they do encounter challenges, there’s really little point in putting effort in. If they were smart, they’d be able to accomplish whatever task is put before them. In fact, perhaps it even means they’re not smart…that they’ve been lied to about their intelligence!

There’s a reason why process and effort, rather than innate ability, needs to be emphasized with kids. Children are so in the moment, that they don’t have the ability to observe processes from beginning to end. Think about yourself – when you reflect on how you learned how to read, what comes to mind? Do you recall the hours your teachers and parents spent reading to you, showing you words and letters, teaching you to painstakingly write your own name? Or does it seem like there was one moment where the squiggles on the page, magically almost, began to make sense and you could pull meaning from what was in front of you?

For most of us, we perceive it to be the latter, even though we know that this is a fiction. But if we really believe it to be true, we’ll expect it to happen. The trickiness of calculus should just reveal itself to us, essays should spring magically from our fingers, brilliant debate points should fall out of our mouths as soon as we open them. And if they don’t? Well, there’s not much point in trying; after all, it would be easy if I was smart.

As a counsellor in private practice, I meet these folks later in life. I meet them when they’ve become paralyzed by fear that nothing they produce will measure up to the alluring view of themselves they received as a kid. I meet them when they’ve become so frightened that they can’t measure up to the expectations placed on them as children that they’re scared to put in any effort, lest it just become another opportunity for them to fail, to lose their status as a ‘smart person’. Obstacles are impossible to overcome, and it’s infinitely more preferable to not take the risk in the first place.

There’s some sadness to this. After all, these folks didn’t do this to themselves. And no one meant to do it to them – adults in that kid’s life just wanted to make them feel good, and to feel good themselves for putting a smile on a kid’s face. But there are heavy consequences to praising something beyond one’s control.

Below are 10 things you can say instead of ‘you’re so smart!’

1. Nice work, tell me about how you did that.

Put the emphasis on what the individual did. Help them engage with their choices and hard work, and relate that to their success.

2. Nice grade! How’d you manage that?

The compliment is fine, but again – relate this accomplishment to the work the child did, and the choices they made, not just to their ‘intelligence’.

3. Tell me about your drawing/test/essay/whatever.

Leave it super open-ended. Let the child tell you about what they did, and leave grades out of the conversation completely. If it’s important to them, they’ll bring it up.

4. How did you get so good at that?

Emphasize process. This helps remind kids that good things happen when we plug into tasks from beginning to end, not when we just focus on the result.

5. Did it take a long time to learn how to do that?

Draw attention to the fact that your child stuck with the process, and grinded out the win.

6. Who’s someone who helped you get good at that?

This develops a sense of gratitude and connectedness in one’s accomplishments.

7. You must have worked hard to do that well eh?

Praise the process, not just the product.

8. What inspired you to put all that work in?

Was it just to get a good grade? Or is there more to this child’s experience of school, beyond just getting positive feedback from teachers?

9. What do you like about this kind of assignment?

Encourage the child to engage with their joy of learning, rather than just the feedback that they receive for completing assignments.

10. Is this your best work?

This question is not meant to make a child feel inadequate or that their best is not good enough. Rather, it’s to help them to develop their own ability to evaluate their work, and assess it honestly based on the effort that they put in. It’s best to ask in cases where you know it is the child’s best effort – it gives them a chance to reflect on what that looks like, and how it feels to try their best.