When someone calls my kids smart, I wince. I know they mean well, and I do very much appreciate it anytime someone gives my children positive attention, especially to compliment them. But I take great pains not to call my kids smart because I think it's one of the most counter-productive things I can do.
A while ago, someone very kid played an iPhone app with Summer. Summer really loved this person (and continues to love!) this person, and again, I so much appreciated the time this person took to play with my daughter. This person said, "Guess what? When you play this game, it makes you smarter! And you're already smart, so you'll be really good at this game."
Summer did well with the easy levels, and everyone (including herself) congratulated her on being smart. But then the game got harder, and when she couldn't beat a level on the first or second try, Summer lost interest. "I guess I'm not that smart," she said.
You can see where I'm going with this.
I don't think this particular instance is a big deal. Relatives and my friends can keep calling Summer smart all they want, because they won't have the influence I have. But as a parent, I don't want Summer to think a whole lot about being smart. I want her to know that being smart means nothing, and grit and hard work means everything.
I you think about it, after a certain threshold being "smart" doesn't mean a whole lot. Sure, it's important to know how to read and write and think about things in an abstract way. But Summer doesn't know how to tie her shoes or say her alphabet or read the word "sun" because she's smart. It's because she practiced.
Science backs this up. Well, soft science I guess. In an article called "The Perils of Praise" here is a description of an experiment a researcher conducted:
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.
The article continues:
Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.And the conclusion:
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”