Praise That Backfires: Why Calling Kids "Smart" Might Hurt More Than Help

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RENO, NV -- Every parent tries to raise their kids as best they can, and for many, that means showering children with praise.

And when you praise children for being smart, you expect them to fearlessly conquer new academic challenges because they believe they're smart.

But many psychologists and educators claim the opposite is true: that labeling kids as "smart" doesn't stop them from underperforming -- it might actually cause it.

Tovin Kahabka is a 4th grader from Gardnerville, and he's been told his whole life -- by doctors, by teachers, and by classmates -- that he's smart. Case in point: while KOLO 8 News Now reporter Angela Chen was at his house, she observed him taking less than a minute to finish his math homework. All the answers were correct.

"I'm at the top of my class," said Tovin. "That's how I've always been in school."

Being known as smart shaped how Tovin approached his schoolwork. His parents say if he comes across something that isn't naturally easy to him, he gives up. Or he gets angry. Tovin, like so many other high-performance kids, splits his world into two categories: things he's inherently good at and things he is not.

Diane Barone, a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at UNR, focuses on young children's literacy development. She says many children who are constantly called smart often have excuses for their failures -- and those excuses are usually someone else's fault.

"If you say I'm smart, then I'm smart, so anything that I do, it should be easy, right?" said Barone. "So if it's difficult, then I assume that you gave me the wrong thing to do because you should know I'm smart. So you should give me something that I can do. So if I don't do well, it was the task was too hard. The teacher asked me to do something that was stupid. If it had been a better day, and I wasn't so tired, I might have done better on it. There's always an excuse, but it's never an excuse about 'Gee, if I had given it more effort, I might have done better on it.' It's never a personal excuse. It's always an outside excuse."

It all goes back to what many adults tell high-performance kids their identity is -- smart, genius, brilliant. But if calling a child "stupid" is unacceptable, then, according to one psychologist, calling a child "smart" is equally damaging.

"I think we were brainwashed by the self-esteem movement to believe that by heaping praise on our kids, telling them how smart, brilliant talented they are, this would give them self-esteem and allow them to succeed in life," said Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. "Our work shows this is not the case."

For over a decade, Dweck studied the effects of praise on hundreds of kids across the nation. The kids involved in the study came from a range of backgrounds and included students from rural and urban areas as well as both private and public schools.

In Dweck's research, she split kids into two groups. As one group solved puzzles, her team would tell the kids they were smart upon completing the task. She found that these kids started to avoid doing anything tougher.

"When we praised kids for their intelligence, it backfired," said Dweck. "Just by praising their intelligence, it became so important for them to be smart all the time. They couldn't tolerate difficulty, confusion. They couldn't open themselves up to learning."

Those kids cared more about maintaining their "smart" image than learning; when asked to report their scores, many of them lied and said they received higher scores than they actually did.

When Dweck praised the second group as hard-working, the kids had better success and attitudes.

"We gave them process praise that could be strategy, effort, improvement," said Dweck. "They flourished. When we asked them what they wanted to work on next, it was a hard task that they could learn from, not some easy task where they could feel smart."

Dweck says by praising kids as hard-working, kids feel they can control their success by controlling their own effort...versus being imprisoned by what they're naturally good at.

Part of the problem is the shame associated with struggle.

Barone explains that the reasoning with some high-performance kids follows that if they are smart, they should not have to try hard.

"If you try hard, it's almost like, 'Oh, you just really didn't have the talent to do it,'" said Barone.

With sports, it's accepted that being the best means practicing. But if the brain is a muscle, just like your body, why is the body praised for going through the struggle, and the other, stigmatized?

"In the U.S., struggle is seen by kids -- we've studied this -- as something that makes them feel incompetent," said Dweck. "They think, if you're really really smart or talented, it should come easily."

It certainly comes easily for Kira, a high performance 4th grader from Sparks.

Her mom already focuses on praising her effort but still calls her smart. Instead of getting angry like many boys, Kira gets downcast when she can't solve a problem.

"I think she gets sad," said Kristina Nierman, Kira's mother. "She gets a little mopey."

We asked Tovin and Kira's parents to experiment with their language and to focus their praise strictly on effort and process for two weeks. They say that the difference was noticeable.

"We started checking our language," said Heather Kahabka, Tovin's mother. "And so things as simple as jump-roping that normally he'd jump once and give up and say, 'Well, I'm not good at this.' We said, 'Well, hey, I like the way you tried. Why don't you try it again or try it this way?'' And darn if he didn't keep trying, which was amazing because normally he would not do that. He would have given up, thrown the jump rope down and run away."

"Kids really responded to it well, and the thing I noticed more than anything is that they started pointing out to me very specific things they were doing," said Nierman.

So if you're supposed to stay away from words like "smart" and "genius," how should you praise your kids when they've done something well?

"You say, 'Good job.' Well, why is it a good job?" said Barone. "Wouldn't it be better to say I really appreciated your work here because you were able to give me five really descriptive words about this character? I would say, 'So tell me about how you did that.' I want the kid in charge, not me giving praise to the kid."

This type of praise is called "process praise," and some teachers use it to show kids that struggle is nothing to be ashamed of.

"I've seen a child who got a B+ and cried his eyes out because it wasn't good enough, and he didn't understand why it happened to him because all his life he's been told he's smart and this should not happen," said Annette Friedlander, a 3rd grade teacher at Brookfield School in Reno.

"It's better to praise the job that the child's done. The fixed mindset is 'I'm smart and can do no wrong' whereas the growth mindset is 'I'm going to keep working at it and even if I fail once or fail twice, that's ok.'"

Every child in Mrs. Friedlander's 3rd grade classroom is reading at a 4th grade level or higher -- a testament that the right kind of praise can make all the difference in what a child believes he or she can do.

Dweck says the impact of praise starts much earlier than expected. Her latest study found that the type of praise babies received predicted how they turned out five years later. Babies who heard process praise. versus those who did not, turned into kids who were more willing to take on new challenges and also believed their intelligence could be grown.