Have you ever told your child how smart they were? If so, continue reading, as you are about to discover one of the most important secrets known to modern psychology.
Many professionals working with children are coming to realise the danger of labelling children through criticism (e.g., “You are a stupid”). However, positive labels such as “You are very clever” can also undermine children in the longer term, because they can inadvertedly “fix” their perception of their intelligence levels.
Research suggests that when children are praised for how intelligent they are, they become focused on retaining this label and on being judged well by others rather than on continuing to learn. So praising for intelligence, or talent, may seem a positive thing to do but can distort children’s attitude to learning. In fact, intelligence praise supports the development of a fixed mindset in children, whilst process praise promotes a flexible mindset. What are these?
Based on her empirical research, researcher Carol Dweck concluded that most of us fall into two basic ‘mindsets’. The first she calls ‘the fixed mindset’. This mindset upholds the idea that people’s ability is fairly fixed and not open to change. According to such a view, people are either “made for this or that”, intelligent, sporty, arty, good at maths, etc, or they aren’t. The ‘growth mindset’ sees people as essentially malleable. In other words, they aren’t fixed, but have huge potential for growth and development. This view is well supported by neuroscientific evidence showing that people’s brains continue making new connections until the day we die.
This very simple theory of different views of people has enormous implications for how our kids will learn, achieve goals and bounce back from difficulties. When someone with a fixed mindset does not find a solution to a difficult problem, he tends to withdraw efforts, because the implicitly interprets the situation as “I am not smart enough for this, so what’s the point in trying”. The growth mindset, on the other hand, focuses on learning goals, on mastery and competence, and not simply winning. They view effort as a necessary part of success and try harder when faced with a setback. It is not surprising therefore that these kids usually succeed in increasing both their performance and enjoyment of tasks.
Praise is not a villain – however, praising for strategies, effort and process, rather than outcome, will help your kids become more motivated to persevere and ultimately more resilient. It can take a while to change a fixed mindset into a growth one. Unfamiliar with this research during the early years of my oldest kids, I praised them for intelligence far more than necessary and as a result spent years getting them to appreciate the value of effort. So don’t give up!