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The Power of Not Praising Your Child For Being Smart

How the mindset we cultivate in our children can inhibit or enhance their ability to succeed.

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The outlook we adopt profoundly affects the way we lead our lives. But it’s not just the simple dichotomy of positive versus negative. Seeing our abilities, talents, and skills as something we can augment significantly influences our confidence and capacity to flourish. This is called having a “growth mindset.”

The earlier in life we develop this mentality, the more motivated we will be to work hard to reach our goals, be resilient when we encounter something difficult, keep pushing forward when we experience a disappointing setback, and better shield ourselves from unconstructive criticism or insults. This applies to every aspect of our lives: academics, sports, hobbies and pursuits, relationships, and business.

A “fixed mindset” is believing that one is born with a finite amount of intelligence and ability. Sadly, many teens and kids are lodged in this static state of mind. They believe they are not good at a specific subject in school, or they think they are untalented or lacking athleticism, and there is nothing they can do to change that reality. Sometimes they use this black and white thinking to shield themselves, believing they have an innate capability for certain things and fearing anything that could potentially prove otherwise. You likely have a child with a fixed mindset if they only gravitate towards activities that testify to the exceptional qualities they’ve been praised for in the past.

Our mentality usually cultivates from a seed planted by our caretakers at an impressionable age. Therefore, it is critically important for parents, guardians, and mentors to be very conscious of how they offer praise for achievements and discuss matters where there is room for improvement. Trusted adults play an essential role in how kids and teens view failure and their abilities to succeed. So be mindful of your words as they can have a long-lasting impact.

It’s essential to guide them towards an empowering attitude, but the best approach might not be what you think.

Since Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering work on growth vs. fixed mindsets, child development experts have warned that telling kids they’re smart causes them to fear doing anything that might disprove or make others question their skills or intellect. This leads them to avoid navigating beyond their comfort zone or making mistakes, just the sort of striving that drives learning and reaching their full potential.

In Dweck’s insightful book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she states children with a growth mindset try to stretch themselves because their definition of achievement is about becoming smarter. Dweck writes, “after thirty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

So, instead of praising your child for being born talented, gifted, or intelligent, you should always try to focus on their efforts, progress, hard work, and ability to overcome obstacles. Your child’s brain is flexible and adaptable. With the right type of support and encouragement from you, they can move past this detrimental and limiting mentality holding them back from prospering in school and life.

Here are two examples of praise that could lead to a fixed mindset:

  • “You figured that out so fast! Great job! You are so smart!”
  • “You got another A! I am so proud! You are so smart!”

Sounds great, right? The problem is these types of statements can lead to fearful thoughts, such as:

  • “If I don’t figure things out fast, I must not be very smart.”
  • “If I have to study, I’m not naturally gifted, and my parents won’t be proud of me.”

Here are two examples of ways to offer healthy praise, which emphasizes both effort and application:

  • “You got an A in your math class. You must have worked really hard. Wonderful job!”
  • “You got a high score on your project. I am proud of how committed you were to the assignment and how you applied yourself. Keep up the great work!”

You should not only hold back from telling your child they are smart, but another consideration is also being conscious of how you deal with failure.

If a child views disappointment as a reflection of who they are and their innate capabilities, they will often side-step doing demanding tasks or may lack ambition altogether. Their fear of rejection, being judged, or even angering or disappointing you will eclipse any prodigious goals they might have had for their future. But, when the child sees failure as a step on the road to eventual achievement, risks are no longer something to avoid.

The key is to focus on goal setting and individual engagement, not the outcome of the goal itself. Shine the spotlight on how much effort they put into the task at hand, guiding their proficiency when needed. If you overreact to small infractions or mistakes, your child may be cautious about pursuing ambitions or may shy away from sharing challenges with you. It’s imperative to know life is not about winning all the time. It’s about being brave and following your passion, even when something is hard. Failure is not a result. It’s part of the process.

And remember, when you make mistakes, embrace them, and talk to your child about what you’ve learned from the experience or what you will do differently next time.

Here’s a helpful exercise if your child is struggling to move past their fear, doubt, and insecurities:

Come up with a list of activities that were once challenging and became much easier with practice: riding a bike, reading, roller skating, playing an instrument, drawing, or coloring. Giving them real-life examples of how they have overcome difficulties in the past is extremely powerful. Being able to reflect on a time when they were challenged and eventually succeeded will shift them out of the fixed mindset and into a more empowered way of thinking.

In fact, the brain does not grow just from getting the answers right. We must keep strengthening our brain by challenging ourselves and pursuing the next level of difficulty. This will involve mistakes, and sometimes disappointment, and that’s ok!

Dweck points out that each person has a unique genetic legacy. People may start with different temperaments and aptitudes, but experience, training, and personal effort take us the rest of the way. Intelligence is not the determining factor of ultimate victory.

So, give your child the gift of a growth mindset. The benefits of believing they can bloom with practice and effort will provide them with the self-confidence and strength they need to follow their dreams and truly thrive. Encourage your child to challenge themselves in professional and personal contexts and remember not to praise intelligence or talent but applaud the process. Do this, and you’ll ultimately help sculpt their capacity for happiness and success.

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