All parents like to think their child is “smart.” And most parents make it a point to tell their child he’s smart, so he’s confident about his intellectual abilities. In fact, a study conducted by Columbia University found that 85% of parents think it’s important to tell their child “You’re so smart!” on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, that’s not the best way to help children feel smart. In fact, it often makes them worry that maybe they aren’t smart enough. Why? Because then your child has to maintain his reputation, and “smart” is a confusing concept.
For example, researchers have repeatedly found that if we tell a child how smart he is to have figured out a puzzle, he’ll shy away from harder puzzles. After all, he doesn’t want to risk you seeing him as anything but smart. And he knows perfectly well that smart people don’t get stumped by puzzles. So why should he try a harder puzzle, even if he might enjoy it?
Well-meaning praise can make a child avoid situations in which he might not appear smart. Unfortunately, that includes any situation where he’s learning new things or might have to work hard to understand something.
Research shows that kids who are told they’re smart:
- Think they should be good at everything without trying because having to work hard proves they must not be smart
- Won’t try things they aren’t naturally good at
- Sooner or later bump up against something that makes them feel less smart, which undermines their confidence
- Don’t seek out learning opportunities because they think if they were smart, they would already know these things – which undermines their cognitive development
- Don’t feel empowered to get smarter because they think being smart is innate
Stanford researcher Carol Dweck says that we can support the child more by focusing on effort, rather than innate ability. “Emphasizing effort gives the child a variable they can control. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure. You want to teach kids that smart is a muscle they are in charge of building.”
What does Dweck mean that “smart is a muscle”? Many people believe that intelligence is static; either you’re smart or you’re not. But it turns out that intelligence is like a muscle: it can be developed with use. What’s more, if you believe that’s true, your brain has more potential!
Dweck ran an experiment with junior high school students. If they helped the kids to think they could develop their intelligence, would the kids’ math grades improve? In less than two hours over eight weeks, they taught the students concepts such as: Your brain is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise; just as a baby gets smarter as it learns, so can you. The results were astonishing: the brain-is-a-muscle students significantly outperformed their peers in a math assessment, without additional math teaching.
As parents, our goal is to raise kids who believe in their ability to build mental muscle. These kids are perpetual learners -- they can learn what they need to in new situations and are always curious to learn more.That means re-defining what intelligence is and the way we and our children think about it.
Experts also question the obsession in our culture with pushing children to read or achieve academically before kindergarten age. Toddlers and preschoolers have other, more critical work to do, from building with blocks, to playing with rhythm and color, to learning how to get along with their peers.
Even Verbal and Logical Intelligence actually begin with talking and wondering, when toddlers participate in thousands of everyday conversations about life. That’s why kids who are lucky enough have quality discussions with parents as toddlers and preschoolers do better as they make their way through school.
Our job as parents? To encourage our kids’ natural curiosity and passions, from dancing to reading to drawing. And to make sure our kids know that it’s intellectual lifting that builds brainpower, and that what matters is curiosity and working at something, not innate smarts.