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Why Telling Your Children They Are Smart Can Lead To Failure

Say This, Not That: 10 Growth Mindset Statements For Your Child. photo credit: @sylviaduckworth

Your child brings home a math test on which they received 100%. You recall that they had only spent 30 minutes studying on the night before the test. “You’re a natural,” or “good job, you’re so smart,” you say. However, research from Stanford University’s Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck shows that praising children for their perceived intelligence may be limiting their potential for growth. A more helpful way to encourage your child is to praise them for the work they put forth, their willingness to try, or their creativity, all of which cultivates a productive growth mindset. 

The Case Against “Smart”

When you tell your child that they are smart, you are placing them on a pedestal, Dweck says. Your child learns to do the things that will net them the most praise. Children who are told that they are “smart” or “bright” will often choose easier tasks over harder ones in order to continue receiving praise. When children are told that they are good at something, they get the impression that they should not have to work hard at it. Alternatively, if writing an essay takes them a lot of time and work, they inevitably think that they are not good at writing because it didn’t come easy to them. This is what Dweck calls the fixed mindset.

In a fixed mindset, people believe that their personal qualities such as intelligence and talent are set in stone and not able to be changed. Children with fixed mindsets equate intelligence with effortlessness. They avoid challenges because they don’t want to experience failure. Children with fixed mindsets are afraid of not doing well. They perceive failure and intelligence as being linked to their character and self worth so they lose confidence easily when faced with a difficult task. In addition, fixed mindset individuals may rely too heavily on their intelligence getting them by and thus, never learn work ethic or proper study skills. This may explain why many intelligent students have a problem with lack of motivation and laziness.

Change Your Mindset

So how do we fix this? Do we stop complimenting children altogether? The key is to get children to think differently about their perceptions of intelligence. Dweck says we should cultivate a growth mindset in children.

Help your child achieve a productive mindset so they can become top performers. Photo credit: www.peachjar.com/index.php?a=2&b=97943®ion_id=115361


This is the belief that one’s natural abilities and intelligence can grow or be changed through dedication and hard work. Instead of praising your child for their brilliance, praise them for the work or effort they put into the task. Ask them about their thinking process, what choices they made, what worked and what didn’t work. If they make mistakes, help them think of new strategies to solve the problem. By focusing on their efforts and not their intelligence or worth, you’re teaching your child to value commitment, perseverance, and learning.

When children believe that their level of ability can increase, they are more willing to try new challenges and cope when difficulty arises. What makes top performers different from others is not their IQ, but rather their willingness to push themselves and take the challenges they face as learning opportunities.