Jan 292010
 

I’ve been listening to a new audio book on child psychology, Nurtureshock. I hope to give a full review shortly, but each chapter is absolutely fascinating, and I thought I’d share a few of the insights along the way. Right out of the gate, the book’s research contradicts the established “wisdom” of the last few decades, by questioning the effectiveness of praising our children’s intelligence.

For quite some time, we’ve been told that children’s self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of their personality – a predictor of confidence and future success. And we’ve been told that the best way to build that self-esteem is by constantly praising them, especially their intelligence. And this seems to make perfect sense. After all, aren’t our own expectations of ourselves a critical factor in our performance?

And the research shows that praise IS important to children. But it matters a lot what KIND of praise. And it turns out that praising children’s intelligence actually has a negative effect. In one study, for example, children are given a simple puzzle test. One group of children is praised for their intelligence at doing well in the test. The other group of children was praised for their EFFORT. Interesting things happened to the two groups. The children praised for their intelligence became cautious. They were afraid of looking bad on subsequent tests. They played it safe. Deep down, they didn’t think that intelligence was something they could control, and so they worried about looking bad. The children praised for their effort became interested in harder challenges and did better on subsequent tests. They felt that their performance was under their control. By working hard, they could do well.

This pattern showed up in study after study, and when you think about it, it makes a read deal of sense. I was a smart kid myself, and was often told so. But sticking to a task and putting in effort was something I wasn’t good at – perhaps BECAUSE I was praised for my intelligence. Children who are praised for their smarts have a harder time sticking to their efforts when things get tough. If a subject isn’t something they are immediately good at, they tend to lose interest. They come to believe that success lies in finding their natural gifts, and don’t realize that they can achieve success in many other areas with a bit of effort.

Praise children for the efforts they make. Let them know that by practice, and work, they can actually change their brains and become smarter. This is similar to the message of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, which I reviewed earlier. Thousands of hours of practice at a skill can make a master out of virtually anyone.

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  4 Responses to “Never Tell Kids They’re Smart”

  1. Interesting!! … Schools here are recognising this increasingly though – for example by awarding merits for grade increases from, say E to D, just as much as from B to A… and for punctuality, politeness, etc. Maybe kids in general are smart enough to understand that they can control their effort but not their intelligence as a raw commodity?

    • Not only is effort more under our control than native intelligence – statistically it simply doesn’t matter as much for long-term success. Several studies that follow very very gifted children find that they are no more successful as adults than their peers – sometimes LESS so.

  2. Interesting!! … Schools here are recognising this increasingly though – for example by awarding merits for grade increases from, say E to D, just as much as from B to A… and for punctuality, politeness, etc. Maybe kids in general are smart enough to understand that they can control their effort but not their intelligence as a raw commodity?

    • Not only is effort more under our control than native intelligence – statistically it simply doesn’t matter as much for long-term success. Several studies that follow very very gifted children find that they are no more successful as adults than their peers – sometimes LESS so.

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