Why Calling Your Child Smart is Actually Dumb: 5 Ways to Properly Praise Your Child


A teacher instructs a schoolboy in a high school classYour 3rd grader comes home from school and proudly flashes her spelling test with an A+ and a sticker, posts it on the refrigerator, and you say “You’re so smart—you got a perfect score!”

Then your 11th grader reports during dinner that he got a 34 out of 36 on the ACT and you say “Oh my goodness, you have always been so intelligent!”

Is this you? Are you in the habit of telling your kids that they are smart?

If so, you’re not alone, and this article will teach you why it’s worth it to break this habit.

It seems like a harmless, and rather, supportive phrase to say, right?  But in fact, research actually shows that focusing on innate intelligence when praising your kids is actually a disservice.

Saying “you’re smart” teaches kids that they either have the capability to achieve a good grade, or they don’t, and that nothing they do can change this.  Dr. Carol S. Dweck from Stanford calls this perspective a “fixed mindset” and says that it is far inferior to a “growth-mindset.”

Having a growth-mindset means that you understand that the brain is elastic, meaning that it changes and grows as you use it.  Think of it like a muscle: the more you work out your brain, the stronger it gets.

How Can You Strengthen Your Child’s Brain Muscle? 

Have your children take risks by learning new things instead of just rehearsing what they already know.  They will appreciate that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow the brain, instead of reflections of personal shortcomings.

People with a growth-mindset do not rely on their raw intelligence; instead, they put a lot of effort into difficult tasks because they understand that it is possible for them to learn how to do the task at hand.

So, what can you do to develop a growth-mindset in your children? Check out the 5 examples of “process praise,” or praise that draws attention to the effort your student puts into schoolwork instead of innate intelligence.

5 Ways to Praise Your Child

  1. “That geology homework seemed really tricky.  You did a great job reviewing your class notes, referencing your text book, and completing the questions.”
  1. “You really improved on your last German test! What do you think you did this time around?”
  1. “Wow—you sure did get a wonderful grade! All the work I saw you doing this week really paid off!”
  1. It takes courage to choose the most challenging English book to read for your project—good for you!”
  1. “It’s OK that you made a mistake. Mistakes are like puzzles waiting for you to solve them.”

By re-training your child’s mindset with these phrases, you are expanding your own brain by introducing a new habit and perspective on praise.

I challenge you to break the habit of using the “S-word” this year and try your hand at process praise.  You might be surprised how your child’s confidence is boosted and how he will begin to feel less dejected when he makes mistakes.