Why You Should Never, Ever Call Your Kid ‘Smart’

It's natural for parents to want to praise their child, but offering this compliment could actually backfire, according to new science.

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Nothing succeeds like success, as every parent of a straight-A student knows, but trying to reinforce academic excellence by telling your child, “You’re so smart,” may be counterproductive. Here’s why: According to the findings of a new study, children who think their intelligence is fixed are less likely to pay attention and bounce back from mistakes than children who think intelligence can grow and change. Telling kids they’re smart reinforces the idea that intelligence is a genetic gift rather than a skill that can be honed.

In the study, published online in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers at Michigan State University looked at 123 children who were about 7, as kids this age face the challenge of transitioning to school. The team assessed the children to determine whether they had a “growth mindset” (believing that you can work harder to get smarter), or a “fixed mindset” (believing that your intelligence is unable to change). They then asked the children to complete a fast-paced computer accuracy task while their brain activity was recorded. In the task, children played a game, helping a zookeeper capture escaped animals by pressing the space bar when an animal showed up on their screen—unless it was a group of three orangutan friends. During the recording, researchers noted that brain activity spiked within a half-second after making a mistake, as children became aware of their error and paid closer attention to what went wrong. The larger the brain response, the more the child focused on the error.

Based on the data they collected, the researchers concluded that children with a “growth mindset” were much more likely to have a larger brain response after making a mistake, and in turn were more likely to improve their performance by paying closer attention to the task after making an error.

While previous research has shown that people with a “fixed mindset” don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, this study found that children with a fixed mindset were able to “bounce back” after making an error, but only if they gave their full attention to the mistake. “The main implication here is that we should pay close attention to our mistakes and use them as opportunities to learn,” study author Hans Schroder told Science Daily.

For parents, the lessons are clear: For starters, don’t pay compliments that suggest that intelligence is fixed. If a child hands you an A+ test, don’t rave, “You’re so smart!” Instead say, “Wow, that studying really paid off!” or “You clearly mastered this material—way to go!” Note the effort, not the intelligence.

Second, focus on using errors to work together and learn.”Many parents and teachers shy away from addressing a child’s mistakes, telling them “It’s OK, you’ll get it the next time,” without giving them the opportunity to figure out what went wrong,” Dr. Schroder says. “Instead, it’s better to reassure the child that mistakes happen, and to pay attention and work to figure out where and how they made the mistake.” Here are additional ways you can help enhance your child’s education.

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