Erin Chawla: The Kiducation Learning Curve


Why I'm Not Telling My Students They Are Smart

Should You Feel Guilty Complimenting Your Kids?

I recently read Melissa Gaston’s post Why I’m Going to Stop Telling my Daughter She’s Beautiful, a response to Erica Ehm’s post Why I Feel Guilty Watching This Beautiful Video. All this talk about image got me thinking about another thing we need to be careful about telling our kids. We need to try and stop telling our kids they are smart.

WHAT?!? Did you hear me right? Is this teacher saying don't tell kids they are SMART? Yep. You heard me. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very supportive, encouraging teacher and if your child is in my class you can be assured I am kindly urging them towards their learning goals, but I try (and I still have some work to do on this, especially when it comes to my own daughter) not to tell my students they are smart.

You see, it’s all about mindset. Once upon a time, I read a book written by Carol Dweck, titled Mindset. I think it is an important book for both educators and parents to read. Essentially, Dweck talks about two kinds of mindsets people have about characteristics — a growth mind set or a fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is one that supposes the traits we have are passed on biologically from our parents. They are things we can’t change through effort, practice and hard work. Height, for example, is pretty much a fixed trait. No matter how much you cajole, praise or consequence a kid, they just aren’t going to be able to grow taller through effort. Of course, growth can be affected by nutrition, disease or accident, but for all intents and purposes, it is a fixed trait. You are born preloaded with the genes for your height and with or without intervention, stiletto heels aside; you will grow to that height.

Conversely, a growth mindset is one that looks at traits as things that can be altered through behaviour, effort and work. Our ability to drive a car, for example, can be changed through practice. When someone first starts driving, they might be stiff and nervous, unsure of how to co-ordinate their hands and feet with what their eyes are taking in. But, through practice and effort, most people improve until they are no longer consciously aware of the movements necessary to drive a car.

So, where does intelligence fit in? Is it a fixed trait passed on by our parents, or a fluid trait that can be grown through effort? Obviously, our “smartness” comes a little from both camps. Sure, some of our ability to be clever is innate — the product of a healthy pregnancy and a great cocktail of genes from mommy and papa. But, our brain’s abilities are so much more complicated than that. We can absolutely grow our intelligence through practice and effort. Indeed, our brains are constantly growing and adapting without effort on our part — imagine how much further they can go with focused hard work.

When we tell our kids that they are smart, much like when we tell them that they are pretty, we are praising a fixed trait — something that they had very little to do with. Far better to praise their effort! When your student comes home with a great mark, it’s more helpful to say, “hey, you must have worked hard on that” or “tell me how you got all that material to stick in your brain.” These responses show your child that it is effort and work that earns success and that intelligence is something that can be improved upon. If your response consistently is, “wow, you must be so smart!” our children see intelligence as something outside of their control and may believe that it is just lucky that they happen to be “smart.” This view can cause our kids problems in the future.

As a society, we are all about well-intentioned praise to boost our kids’ self-esteem, but sometimes that praise sends the wrong messages despite our efforts. We are constantly heaping unhelpful compliments on our kids, as so many proud parents (myself included) are inclined to do. We tell our kids their artwork is museum worthy, their athletic ability is Olympic-bound and their schoolwork is nothing short of genius. This can have the unwanted result of a child being afraid to try, lest they achieve something less than perfection. When we say things such as, “amazing, you got top marks without even studying,” the child might think, if I have to study to get good marks, then mom won’t think I’m brilliant.

This is a hard habit to break. As a parent and a teacher, I hear the words tumble out of my mouth all the time. But, aware of their impact, I try to follow up this pointless, unhelpful praise by complimenting effort and hard work. “Baby girl, you learned that so quickly. You are so smart!” (my daughter thinking ”if I don’t get things quickly, then I must not be smart,” me mentally kicking myself). So I follow up quickly with, “I really like the way you worked hard to get that right. I like the way you concentrate on things.” Keep in mind, my daughter is only 14 months right now, so we’re talking skills like using a fork and walking, but still, I’m trying to create a habit. And, a toddler is the world’s greatest example of tenacity and hard work. No matter how many times baby girl fell, she kept on popping right back up until she mastered walking and now is striving for running. I can only hope this perseverance carries on throughout her lifetime.

Conversely, in my classroom, I see many students who have become convinced that they are not smart, and therefore they are completely disenchanted with learning and expect constant failure. They have come to believe intelligence is something that is given, and that they just didn’t get as much of it. It part of my job to show them that there is no such thing as smart and not smart, there is only working hard to improve and trying to learn something new every day. 

I often cite the example of Michael Jordan to my students. When Michael was cut from his high school basketball team, he didn’t take it as a sign he should quit. He didn’t believe that athletic ability was fixed, and he just didn’t get the right amount of it to succeed in basketball. Instead, demonstrating that growth mindset, Michael just took it as a sign he needed to practice more. He practiced day in and day out, throughout his entire career. And look where it got him?

So, try not to tell your kids they are beautiful, and try not to tell them they are smart. Do tell them they are loved! Do praise those things that your kids have control over — practice, hard work, discipline (not to mention, keeping their rooms clean). Do help your children to learn from both their successes and their failures. Oh, and while you’re at it, please remind me to do the same!

Enjoy the journey!