The Identity Issue: Is “You’re So Smart!” Actually Not So Wise?

It’s only natural to want to praise kids’ intelligence, but there are more constructive ways to support their intellectual identity.

Parker Barry

As soon as toddlers hold up two little fingers when asked, “How old are you?” and preschoolers sing the alphabet song, parents begin to enthusiastically coo, “You’re so smart!”

Understandably so. That natural reaction to praise our young kids’ intelligence is a spontaneous expression of wonder at their incredible growth and development. But, for kids, all those “you’re so smarts” that build up over time can feel more like piles of expectations, rather than well-intentioned praise.

Many kids aren’t just hearing it from their parents. The “smart” label is reinforced by teachers and friends at school if they’re a class standout, and especially if they’re in a gifted program at school.

“It’s awful,”my daughter told me when asked about her gifted designation at school. “Even if I do well or just a little bit above good on something, it’s not good enough. Other kids that people don’t label as smart, when they turn in good work, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you did amazing.’ If I turn in just good work, not great, the teacher says, ‘What happened?’ Maybe I’m not as good in that one subject or on that assignment, but when they label you as smart, you can’t slip up once.”

Indeed, many studies suggest that praising kids for an innate ability such as intelligence reduces motivation, while recognizing kids’ efforts is more helpful. This much-considered dichotomy is called many things in the psychology community—fixed mindset vs. growth mindset, entity model vs. talent development model, person praise vs. process praise. Whatever you call it, the basic message is this: Effort is where it’s at.

Praising intelligence can demotivate smart kids and kids with low self-esteem

“Everybody has to practice, has to have good teaching, has to struggle, maybe even to fail at times,” said Tracy Cross, Ph.D., professor of psychology and executive director of the Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary.

Cross sees many kids who are designated as intellectually gifted (read: have been told their entire lives how smart they are) who “shut down or tune out” as soon as they run into their first real academic challenges, often around the fourth or fifth grade. He said these kids presume that “if you have to work at it, you must not be gifted.” This fragile view of intelligence as a static identity trait (as opposed to something that is worked on, that grows and changes throughout life) tends to demotivate even the smartest kids.

The “you’re so smart” message is also particularly problematic for kids struggling with low self-esteem. Child development specialists at the University of Amsterdam discovered this counterintuitive finding in a 2016 study of kids ages 7 to 12 called The Praise Paradox: When and Why Praise Backfires in Children with Low-Self Esteem. They found that trying to boost kids’ self-confidence by telling them how smart, creative or generally great they really are can make these kids feel even worse. The same goes for “inflated praise,” or making more out of an accomplishment than is warranted, according to the same study.

Of course, kids and parents are all unique. So individual approaches and reactions to any form of praise will vary from family to family and kid to kid. For all three of my kids, I’ve tried to stress hard work over the easy A and the joy of learning more than the excitement of performance, although certainly I’ve made my share of mistakes, sometimes asking too many questions when a low test grade comes home and praising too much at an especially good report card. I’m learning right along with them, and there’s a lot for parents to learn.

How praise affects motivation

There are some clear messages from current research about how kids’ motivation and self-perceptions are affected by praise.

  • How it’s said: Process praise is praise that emphasizes the child’s effort, strategies or actions. For example, verbalizing the effort kids show when they practice an instrument or when they take an intellectual risk by trying a difficult extra-credit problem (even if they don’t get it right) is process praise. The message you want to send is “effort is what gets you to your successes,” said Elizabeth Gunderson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University.
  • When it’s said: Person praise may be more problematic for older kids than for very young kids, while process praise may benefit children from an early age. In a study Gunderson conducted on the types of praise parents use with kids ages 1 to 3, she found that when parents used more process praise when kids were very young, children were more likely to enjoy challenging tasks and believe that intelligence can be improved with effort at age 7 or 8. In the same study, parents’ use of person praise (for instance, saying “good girl”) when children were only 1 to 3 years old was not related to their motivation later on. Still, she suggests parents get into the habit of process praise earlier than later, in light of its long-term benefits.
  • How it’s received: Person praise filtered through a kid’s-eye view of the world may not be received in the way the praiser expects. For example, if a kid feels an inflated perception of their parents’ expectations (correctly or incorrectly) because Mom or Dad is constantly telling them how smart they are, that may translate for that kid into the message “Mom and Dad won’t think I’m smart anymore if I get a B,” according to Cross. Or, if a kid is labeled at school by teachers or peers as smart, he or she may feel a constricting effect on their real personality. Also, a kid’s natural temperament will affect how they react to any mention or recognition of their intelligence. Extroverted kids may relish the smart spotlight, but many introverted children do not want that kind of attention in public.

It’s not difficult to move beyond “You’re so smart.” Find out five ways you can support your kid’s intellectual identity.

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