Why You Don’t Want a “Smart” Kid

“Wow! You’re so smart!”

The words have always been quick to pop out of my mouth when I’m talking to a child who does something impressive. I think this is the case for most of us, and it can be a hard habit to break. But why would we want to break it?

smart student

As it turns out, praising your child’s intelligence may actually hinder his or her ability to cope with failure. This, in turn, can negatively affect various aspects of his or her life.

In the early 2000s, Columbia University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck conducted an experiment with approximately 400 elementary students in New York schools. Essentially, her study involved giving all of the students the same relatively easy aptitude test. Afterwards, Dweck’s research assistants praised each student for his or her good score.

However, some students were praised with attention to their intelligence, while others were applauded for their hard work. In line with Dweck’s initial hypothesis, the difference in emphasis seemed to affect each student’s future efforts.  In subsequent tests given in the study, the students praised for their intelligence avoided the more difficult options, whereas the ones  praised for their hard work were eager to attempt new challenges.

Ultimately, the students who were praised for being “hard-working” were actually more successful than those who were told they were “smart.” (You can read the specific details of the study and its conclusions in a 2007 article in New York Magazine here.)

Despite the fact that this study was published over a decade ago, it still isn’t very integrated into our current patterns of how we talk to kids. It is still second-nature for parents, teachers, and (of course) homeschooling parents, to constantly reassure the children in our lives that they are smart.

However, Dweck’s study does more than show how praising a child’s intelligence might be detrimental. It also demonstrates how influential an adult’s affirmation can be as that child struggles to learn and succeed. In light of these conclusions, here are just a few of the valuable qualities that could emerge in your child when you shift the emphasis from being “smart” to “working hard.”

  1. Boldness

The children in the study who thought of themselves as “hardworking” rather than “smart” were not afraid of failure. They chose to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles and tests, unafraid of embarrassment. They saw each new challenge as a learning process and demonstrated a boldness which will likely serve them in many aspects of life.

  1. Curiosity

Boldness and curiosity go hand-in-hand. Think about how quickly young children learn. They are always asking questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is the grass green?” When they begin to be embarrassed by asking so many questions, their curiosity reaches an apparent halt. Not only were the children in the study unafraid of embarrassment, they were curious about new challenges. Ultimately, these children  learned more. Even more noteworthy? They wanted to keep learning.

  1. Humility

Kids who primarily identify themselves as “smart” often face an internal ego-war. As the study indicated, children who were praised for being smart became very afraid of losing that label. It became important to always seem smart. This ultimately hindered their ability to move forward. Children can obviously become wrapped up in their own “smartness”. . . to their own detriment. However, this is not so if the emphasis is on hard work, which is external rather than internal. This more humble attitude will also likely be favorable to the child as he or she builds important friendships.

  1. Security

Children who don’t have their identities wrapped up in “being smart” experience a unique freedom. They can try and fail without it being a major blow to their self-esteem. They can explore the world freely. Even if they don’t always look smart to others, they don’t mind. Their identity lies securely elsewhere.

The next time a child amazes you, consider the effect your praise will have.  Your words have the potential not only to encourage, but also to help that child grow and learn. Sure, you could tell the child that he/she is smart, but what are some other aspects of success you might focus on?

Is he particularly curious? Did she ask interesting questions? Has he been practicing a particular skill?  Did she work hard? Did he fail but try again? Your words of praise will have a bigger impact than you may have imagined, so be smart . . . work hard to choose just the right ones!

What’s your opinion? Is it okay to praise a  child for being “smart”? Or should you try to focus on his/her hard work? What do you think and why?

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  1. I really like the quote “Children who don’t have their identities wrapped up in “being smart” experience a unique freedom.”
    Isn’t it interesting what a label does to one? As soon as it is applied, it changes how we view the individual and how that individual challenges or accepts that label.
    Thank you for raising my awareness and for bringing this study back into the light.

  2. What to do if you’ve already done that? I avoided the, “You’re pretty” syndrome, but was calling out individual attributes I saw in my children. I see the difference. The oldest was “smart.” She was obedient, kind, and other things too. Second daughter was opposite :). I called out perseverance, strengh in her. She walks in that for sure and is doing better in college. The oldest is not as disciplined. She doesn’t try as hard because it comes too easy.

  3. I like your blog because it has thrown light on a unique aspect of a child’s personality and how appreciating a child’s smartness can be detrimental. However, I feel it all depends on how the teachers or the parents handle such situations. It may not be a standard rule that hardworking kids do better.

  4. Definitely something to think about. I totally agree with teaching a growth mindset, but I guess that’s got me thinking of how we define smart to our kids – as knowing a lot, or as knowing how to learn a lot? I remember at a job I once trained for being told to work smarter not harder, in other words look for ways to accomplish more with less effort. Maybe there is some overlap though in being smart and working hard that we can harness too? Like can I call my kids smart because they choose to investigate further? Can I teach them to see hard work and failing forward as a part of “being clever“? Just some of the thoughts I’m pondering.

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