“You’re so smart!”
Previous generations may have been very strict and held back from praising their children, but parents today may be overcompensating. (Here are 52 of the worst parenting tips parents get.) According to child development experts, the point of praise is to encourage positive behavior. But simply being “smart” isn’t a behavior, and kids don’t perceive it as something they can control. So praising them for it “is not helpful because kids—and adults—usually think that being smart is innate and fixed,” says Christia Spears Brown, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky. “They think you are born with a certain amount of ‘smartness,’ and if schoolwork comes easily, then you are smart, and if schoolwork is difficult, then you are not smart.” So when they struggle or fail, they will find it that much more discouraging and insurmountable a problem. Instead, studies have shown that parental praise for kids’ hard work instead of their inherent abilities better develops their perseverance. “Saying things like ‘I am so proud of how hard you worked on your math,’ or ‘I am proud of how hard you studied for spelling’ tells a child that success is due to effort,” Dr. Brown says. “Then, when kids face a difficulty, they are more likely to work harder to be successful than to give up because they simply ‘aren’t smart enough.'”
“I’m so proud you got an A!”
Of course, parents are going to be proud if their child gets a good grade—but it’s the improvement that should be praised instead of simply the end result. (Here’s more on why you should never call your kid “smart.”) “Research shows that people are happier when they have a ‘growth’ mindset rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset,” says Laura Markham, PhD, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Research from Stanford showed that kids with a growth mindset improved more in grades and study skills—because they believed they could get better if they worked at it. “We want to encourage children in ways that will help them develop a growth mindset, which will help them become more resilient and able to work hard to accomplish their goals in life,” Dr. Markham says. A better way to praise would be to show them how their effort led to their success. “Encouraging them with work-in-progress praise—’You really are getting the hang of that piece now after all that practice’—can give them a real sense that they are making strides towards becoming more proficient,” say Paul J. Donahue, PhD, the founder/director of Child Development Associates and the author of Parenting Without Fear. “Likewise the child who may not love reading but worked to master his first chapter book should hear solid words of encouragement: ‘You really worked hard to stay focused and sound out all the words, and to finish that long book.'” Getting such compliments will make the child more likely to repeat the action.