The Identity Issue: 5 Ways to Support Your Kid’s Intellectual Identity

Parker Barry

Try these tips to move beyond “you’re so smart.”

  • Be consistent. Use process praise consistently—win, lose or draw. If kids get process praise only when they don’t do well (“I saw the hard work you put into the research on that assignment,” even though they got a low grade) but person praise for successes (“You aced that the multiplication test, math whiz!”), kids will begin to see process praise as a consolation prize, warned assistant professor of psychology Elizabeth Gunderson, Ph.D.
  • Challenge your kid. Find ways to encourage your kid to build their intellectual muscles, both at home and in the classroom. Work with your kid’s teacher to help them stretch, especially in subjects that come easy. Professor of psychology Tracy Cross, Ph.D., suggests reminding your kid, “If you’re not struggling a bit, you’re not learning as much as you could be.”
  • Bust the smart myth. Help your kid reframe what it takes to do well in school and beyond. According to the book Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews, Ph.D., and Joanne Foster, Ed.D.: “Education leaders have identified three factors leading to a student’s high academic achievement: 1). Hard work 2). Encouragement from respected adults 3). Patience on the part of teachers and parents.” (Note: Smart didn’t even make the top three.)
  • Be a beginner. Model intellectual risk-taking and tackle a new skill or subject. Don’t shy away from looking less than competent in front of your kids. “It’s funny the great lengths we go to not let our kids see us struggle,” Cross said. In fact, seeing you working hard and looking bewildered while learning something new may be the best academic encouragement you can give them.
  • Be a booster. Support your kid’s self-generated pursuits. Far more than praise, the spark that comes from their own interests motivates them to put effort into learning and to practice positive risk-taking, developing those mental habits. When you witness a kid working (or playing) tirelessly to master something that they chose independently for their own reasons, you can see their real, individual intelligence shine. There, the pressure of “You’re so smart” is released, replaced by the celebration of “You’re uniquely you.”

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