3 thoughts on “Stop Saying, “You’re so smart!” 3 Better Ways to Praise Kids

  • December 5, 2014 at 11:59 am

    This was a very interesting read, and I appreciate that you put research into a hands-on context for parents (and teachers, in my case).

    I found your second strategy, being genuine in praising or not praising, is something I struggle with. When giving feedback to students I usually try to give one positive and one critical comment. But at times I definitely find myself stretching for a positive, or finding that the student had “more to do” before a piece of work as a whole was worthy of praise. It is intesting to see that research supports this notion that too much positive praise may dull the effects of constructive criticism.

    I will have to be more careful in the future about how freely I doll out compliments, so that students better understand how they can improve.

  • December 29, 2014 at 4:17 am

    There is a difference between obedience and intelligence. We as parents or caretakers should avoid manipulating our children into acts of obedience with ‘inappropriate praise.’ It may be inappropriate to tell a child how smart they are when the task is not about intelligence at all. I believe this type of misalignment leads to unexpected results. (The one year old that may not understand ‘smart’ or ‘creative’ may not be the best example.)

    Praise can be subjective and at times a response simply to a snapshot in time. Parents and teachers must consider the end results needed and align the praise appropriately. The focus should be on providing authentic feedback necessary to foster the learning process. This feedback must be objective in nature and the goal must be to ensure that the child entrusted to us is provided with the tools needed to reach their maximum capabilites.

    I cannot imagine having a positive impact on any child without appropriate praise.

  • January 1, 2015 at 10:55 am

    I really hate this new meme. Please forgive my bluntness, hopefully it will be clear why this makes such a visceral reaction. My quarrel is not with the author at all, but with these “studies and takeways”. As IF there was not enough mommy guilt for the pop-offs we say when we are tired or grouchy or whatever, now we are condemning our child to a life of mediocrity if we praise the kid “the wrong way”. Really? Nope.

    Plus some of it seems extremely overreaching… We tell people “You have beautiful eyes” and not “I like the way you moved your eyeballs to the right. You must have thought it was important to do so.”.

    Additionally, I have problems with the logic of these ideas:

    1) Actually, the worth of praise depends on the person. I cherish every time my father praised my intelligence–in fact I can remember him saying “Stephie–Smart Person!” in praise of an achievement. I can HEAR HIS WORDS in my mind even now.

    If he ever just said “Oh you finished the painting.”, I would be crushed. I was not an idiot as a child. I knew the difference between praise and neutral observation AND I knew that EVERYONE knew the socially understood give and take of conversation. I would assume he hated it! People who respond to praise RESPOND TO PRAISE.

    2) I wish that the studies that this article is referring to were fully accessible at the links that were provided. One of the studies that have been going around about this (though it might not be one here) used STRANGERS praising young children in tasks. That is absolutely unwise to draw a conclusion from. A child has no history with the stranger, and (as kids often do) will change their behavior to what they THINK the expectation of the stranger is. It is similar to how kids behave better at a stranger’s house than at home. What that actually is is a sign of distrust–you know mom is still going to love you and you can act honestly with her, but you have NO idea what the stranger will do. So the child keeps replicating positive results with safe efforts as a “survival” technique.

    3) Not only that, but a parent child relationship is deep and nuanced. Hopefully the parent child relationship does NOT just consist of 2 second praises of “You are very smart!” but also involves the mom or dad discussing the art or project or effort. In the totality of dialog between parent and child, any potential “risk” (if there is such a thing) in saying “You are smart!” is offset by the years of OTHER encouraging and supportive and inquisitive and specific and task oriented praises.

    Using strangers as any part of these experiments, in my opinion, completely invalidates the study. In fact, I think that the more reasonable draw from any study that involves a stranger is that perhaps kids will learn to have a more growth mindset AT HOME (as long as the home is supportive and loving) and that the impact of the praises and condemnations of teachers and other students is more detrimental to growth vs fixed mindset.

    4) There is something amiss because this completely ignores the Pygmalion effect–if a person expects a level of excellence from someone else, then the other person will work hard to achieve it.

    Additionally, people often get fixed mindsets, not because someone believed in them, but because someone said something horrible to them. I would very much like to wager that more fixed mindsets come from a scornful “What are you, stupid?” comment from a fellow math student than from ANY enthusiastic mom saying “You are SO brilliant at math!”.

    5) As for the kids not choosing to be empathetic after being praised doing so….I REALLY want to read that study. Something seems off. Every little kid that I have seen that got praised for doing something nice seemed to want to do something nice again. In fact, the article seems to contradict, first saying kids will become praise hogs (and introducing the three year old who kept doing her shoes over and over) and then a few paragraphs later saying “Nope, if you praise empathy, they stop being interested in it”.

    6) It also depends on the child’s perceptibility. The child who notices nuances might read the mom’s pre-thought, carefully measured “You seem to have worked hard on this” as a damn of faint praise, when she is really just trying to obey these (in my opinion incorrectly extrapolated) studies. If she had obeyed her first instinct and said “WOWOWOWOWOWOW! You are such an artist!” the child would have FELT the enthusiasm. Honesty is important to children.

    Again, kids are not stupid. They know what is considered socially appropriate responses. If my kids showed me a minecraft castle that they had been spending hours on and I said “Oh, you finished it….” they would think I disproved of it. Be honest, adults do this too. We read tones and words and situations and we know that “neutral” is not always good.

    7) These studies fail to take into account that some children yearn for something to identify them, ESPECIALLY if they are outliers and not popular, and being labeled a great artist or smart or whatever helps them when the rest of the world is trying to cut them down.

    I think that it is not about “NEVER CALL THEM SMART!” but rather call the spade a spade–your kid is brilliant. Or an artist. Or a mathlete. Or a musician.

    BUT also praise the process, emphasize fun, encourage during the failures, be a reality check, a drill sergeant if needed, and the biggest cheerleader. Definitely praise the process! Praise the effort. Praise the work. But ALSO recognize what the Lord has given innately: your child is an artist. Your child is a musician. Your child is brilliant at math. It is ok to say so.


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