“You’re so smart!” is a terrible thing to say to a child.
While it seems trivial, the way adults praise children shapes the way they view themselves — with profound implications for their academic achievement growing up and professional and personal success as adults.
We know this thanks to decades of research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.
In one telling study, Dweck and her team gave 400 fifth graders in New York a relatively easy nonverbal IQ test.
After finishing the test, researchers gave students a single line of praise, either “
You must be smart at this” or “
You must have worked really hard.”
Though it was only one sentence, it made tons of difference.
As the experiment continued, the kids were given a test designed for students two grades higher than them, intentionally making them fail. Then they were given another test designed for their education level.
The kids that were praised for their intelligence the first time around did 20% worse on the test after they failed, while the kids that were praised for their effort did 30% better after flunking the extra-hard exam.
All because of how the grownups talked to them.
“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck told New York Magazine, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
That’s because, as subtle as it may sound, praising a kid’s smartness puts them into what she calls a fixed mindset, while praising effort trains kids to having a growth mindset.
Here are the mindset definitions, care of the fantastic Brain Pickings blog:
A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.
A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.
Your mindset has profound outcomes, Dweck has written, since it’s the “view you have of yourself.”
“In one world, effort is a bad thing,” Dweck writes. “It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”
The outcomes of having one mindset or other proved profound for people of all ages. Kids with the fixed mindset were more likely to hide their errors in an effort to look smart, while adults with a fixed mindset expected their romantic partners to make them feel perfect rather than see mistakes and work through problems together.
The takeaway: The next time your kid, colleague, or partner comes home with a gold star, praise the effort they put in — otherwise you’re setting them up for all sorts of failure.
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