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Should we tell our children that they are smart?

You are so SMART!

How should we praise our children? Being a teacher and mother to three girls, I have a lot of opinions on how we should build the self-esteem of our children. Praising kids for beauty and intelligence is important, but in what ways should we accomplish this?

With the publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969 by Nathaniel Branden, the idea that high self-esteem is the main foundation for success has dominated parenting and teaching philosophies. Until recently, this belief system has prevailed in parenting styles as well as in classrooms to the extent that all criticism has been minimized.

Now don't get me wrong, it is incredibly important for us all to have a feeling of self-worth and acceptance, but are we praising our children too much and are we doing it right? Are they given the skills to work at a goal instead of expecting to complete it easily because they are told they are "smart"? Do we set our children up for failure by telling them how smart they are, when in all actuality maybe they are right where they should be: in the middle of that bell curve? I have a feeling that the way we praise is going to change; not that teachers and parents are going to be overly critical of their students, but that they are going to be changing the way they praise their kids.


Does telling your child they're smart actually cause underperformance?

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Columbia and Stanford, is a leading researcher in the effects of praise on students. She and four female research assistance studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth graders in New York schools. Students were divided into two groups: the praise group and the encouragement group. All of the students were given a series of puzzles that were easy to complete. The praise group was told, "You must be smart at this," while the encouragement group was told, "You must have worked really hard."

After the one line of praise or encouragement, the students were given a choice of the type of test to take next. They could either choose a harder set of puzzles that they would learn more from attempting or an easy test like the first. Of those children given praise for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. The majority of students that were told they were smart chose the easier set.

Dweck concluded that, "When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." This is exactly what the students did, they were afraid of failure and chose the easy road.

Dweck and her researchers then did a second and third round. In the second study the students were given puzzles that were very difficult, two grade levels above their abilities. Everyone failed, but their responses were the interesting part. Those praised for their efforts assumed they just hadn't tried hard enough; tried a variety of solutions; got very involved; and still enjoyed the test. Those praised for their smarts assumed they just weren't smart after all and were miserable.

After this round the team gave the students a final round of tests that were the same level as the first tests: easy. Those praised for their efforts did about 30 percent better than their first try, while those praised for their smarts did about 20 percent worse.

Dweck concluded that control played a major role in the students' perfomances. Effort can be controlled and students will work to complete a task, being smart is innate and cannot be controlled.

This study has been repeated and no differences were found between boys and girls or among children of different socio-economical backgrounds.

What I think...

The key to praise is specificity and encouragement of effort, rather than the token, "Great job, Timmy! You are so smart!". Instead, a teacher may say, "I noticed you really thought about how you were going to construct that paragraph, Timmy," or "Look at the vibrant colors in that picture. I notice how precise your strokes are."

The later examples encourages the child to keep up the effort and work toward their goal rather than stopping the process because their work is already great. What is the motivation for the child to continue a project if an authority figure has already given it the thumbs up?

NY Times Article

What do you think???

Jason Lim from Singapore on December 25, 2011:

I think the most important thing to do is to tell them the truth. However, it is also important to be tactful about it, as you do not want to harm their confidence. Positive reinforcement when they do well, and encouragement when they don't is the basic way to do it I think

Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on October 04, 2011:

Excellent hub. You have presnted a very intelligent way to praise children into using their self esteem to obtain their utmost goals.

javonda1 from Illinois on September 22, 2011:

Wow, Wow, Wow...I must say that I am guilty of praising and telling my son how smart he is. It is true that he would rather do the easy stuff as oppose to continuing to learn something that he has to work at achieving. I totatlly understand this concept and will change the way I praise. I will encourage him more. Now I don't always just praise. I also encourage, but I tell him he is smart all the time. I think this is very informative.

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Grant on September 25, 2008:

In our society, good looks get rewarded. Stop complaining.

Ginny on September 25, 2008:

My son is an A student, he is also very, attractive and he finds that teachers either favor him or treat him with suspicion. At school he helps other teens, often this teacher will tell him to stop flirting. We have always taught him that there are no free rides in life, and that his mind is his most useful tool.

He has taken that to heart, and in my opinion is a very, kind, caring, person. But at age 14 he is getting mixed messages from the adults in his life. And brought this to my attention asking me if this was fair. Of coarse it is not, but it is something he needs to learn is simple, envy. I don't want him to be conceited and get lazy, so we have set goals for this first term, with a monetary reward. I hope I am not encouraging greed, but a knowledge that effort pays off. He has questioned his grades and asked if perhaps they were inflated. It upsets me to see him so obsessed with looks. He was never this way in grade school.

My advice was to ride out the storm, by continuing to be a person he could admire. As sooner or later, people would know him for his intelligence and not stereotype him by appearance.

Thing is I don't know if I believe that. Being an average looking woman it is hard for me to know what he is going through. As a teenager it is always important to feel you are acceptable and I can not make other people not judge on first appearances. So do I trust that all my teaching for 14 years is stronger than what he is experiencing?

This boy is becoming a man, and assessing our culture and his place in it.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on December 17, 2007:


I agree with you. Kids can see through empty comments easily. Even students that aren't really bright can be praised though. There are many different types of intelligence and finding what your child excels in and noticing that skill helps build self-confidence. Having a good self-esteem is important in life. Giving high praise in areas of low achievement won't help their self-esteem though, it just undermines your word. Positive encouragement and specific acknowledgements is always a good idea. Thanks for the comment!


I agree that you still would handle the praise in a similar way with a child who is gifted. If you have a good lesson there should be ways of expanding the activity in a meaningful way. It would be great if lessons were designed with a basic concept and then a web of enrichments for students that have already mastered the concept. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Peter Messerschmidt from Port Townsend on December 10, 2007:

I could write a lot about this (and you DID ask what we think!), but will try to restrain myself. Somewhat, anyway...

I think we suffer-- as a culture-- from what I think of as "self-esteem inflation." We "esteem" kids beyond a point that actually reflects a balance with reality. I remember living in the suburb of a southern city, and one of the most frequently spotted bumper stickers in our area read "My kid is an honors student at Yadda Yadda Middle School." What does that mean when EVERY kid in school has one? The argument offered is "We're just trying to build healthy self-esteem." But do we REALLY?

I am 47 years old, so my parents and school were on the "bleeding edge" of the whole self-esteem and "smart" movement. The one thing that often seems forgotten in this whole mix is that kids are NOT idiots. They see, and hear, and understand the world as it really is, more than we give them credit for. So whereas my parents "insisted" I was the smartest kid known to humanity, I was well aware that there were several other kids in my class who consistently did better on homework and tests than I did. As such, my parents actually did me a DISfavor, in that I started to recognize their "praise" for what it was... namely "empty words."

I think praise works best when it is "situational," rather than "blanket." As in "You LOOK pretty today" rather than "you ARE pretty."

As an aside, much of my school life was "colored" by an early IQ test, the ensuing expectations of which I labored under for another 12 years. "Smart" can cause as much damage as good, IMO.

Thanks for bringing up this topic!

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on November 28, 2007:

Ah, I understand what you're saying. I think there are always ways to challenge students, it just takes an extra effort on the teacher/parent. Unfortunately, I think many teachers are overwhelmed with the number of students below average that the gifted students get bored.

Isabella Snow on November 27, 2007:

Oh, I think I follow you - but I'm just saying, what do you do when the kid is a genius and doesn't break a sweat over anything? What then?? Really do love this hub..!

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on November 27, 2007:

Thanks for the comment, Isabella. I wouldn't necessarily recommend telling a child that they worked hard at something if they didn't, but when they do work hard at a project it can be noticed. The goal is to recognize the process, not just the end result, and to avoid blanket statements. ;)

Isabella Snow on November 27, 2007:

Very interesting hub. The only issue I have with telling a child they must have worked really hard at something.... what if it was really easy for him in comparison to his classmates? His perception would eventually lean toward believing himself to be super duper smart, wouldn't it?? But then.. I guess he would be.. hmm.. it's all so complex!! :)

Bako on October 19, 2007:

Interesting, the smartness exhibited by a child may be o.k for his or her mother to praise his or her intelligence once in a while but dangerous when it is often mentioned as the child may have the tendency of growing withlots of proud which will affect his or her ability to listen and learn something new and at the end he or she will continue to make mistakes even on simple and ordinary issues


Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 18, 2007:

Well said, Ralph. The part about G.W. made me laugh! Thanks for the comment!

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on October 18, 2007:

Excellent, thought-provoking Hub! If a child IS smart, I guess it's okay for his or her mother to praise his/her intelligence once in a while. If the kid is average, it's a mistake for his mother to tell him he's smart. That's apparently what happened to George W. Bush. The idea that children should be praised for what they do, not for innate qualities like intelligence or beauty. They can be made to feel good about themselves in lots of ways such as encouraging them to use their talents and pursue their wholesome interests without telling them they are smarter or better than their friends.

Earth Angel on October 18, 2007:

Great comments from Patty Inglish.

I am Type A and I know much of my success/striving/proving came from years and years of being told by my parents during childhood that I was ugly, stupid, fat, etc. Since I was none of those things I questioned my parents when I became a successful-on-all-levels adult.

My mother was a model; her response was, "We knew you were gifted early on and didn't want you to get a fat head. Men don't marry girls who are conceited." My father was a physicist; his response was, "High intelligence is a curse; it provides a broader and immediate understanding of life, increases your responsibility to correct social injustice, and will surely make you ineligible for marriage"

I am reminded of the old saying, "It takes 50 years to get over the first 5!!"

I so applaude parents today who are really trying their BEST to be fully present and make positive choices for their little ones. Blessings, Earth Angel

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 18, 2007:

Thanks for the comment, Livelonger. I have also read about how the self-esteem movement has in some cases created arrogance instead of confidence in our young people. The article by Dweck is what started this hub. I actually started to write it a few months ago and had forgotten about it until I read the forum thread about telling our girls they are beautiful. ;)

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on October 17, 2007:

This is a very insightful and interesting hub, and I agree with you, Robin. Specific, credible praise, instead of the two extremes (no encouragement, or suffocating praise), is probably the best bet. I had read recently that the self-esteem movement, while important in helping set children up for success, was sometimes overdone, so much so that psychologists were noticing kids with too much self-esteem!

I had read about the Dweck study just a few months ago too; very interesting, and it gives all of us hope to achieve things we were never "good" at before if we just try hard enough! Dweck herself has begun learning Italian, at an age when people are supposed to give up trying to learn a foreign language.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 17, 2007:

Thanks for the comment, Patty. I had never heard that about Type A people. I agree with you, it is important to be sincere with our praise. Kids know when we're not being truthful and it takes away all of our credibility. Plus, it sets them up for even greater failures in the future. Constructive criticism can be very valuable, but degrading students doesn't usually work. Knowing your child/student and how they respond to criticism is very important. One child may be motivated by your words while another shuts down. I bet this gets really difficult in a high school setting with so many students. I taught at the elementary level so it was much easier to get to know each child and alter my teaching style to what worked best for them. Thanks!

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 17, 2007:

I agree with the  comments on appropriate praise - well said! In addition to all this info, Type A behavior can result in high achievements out of a lack of self-esteem. "Type A", as it is labeled, often stems from parents failing to acknowledge children's achievements, gifts and talents. There's not room enough here to discuss it all, but research is showing that "Type A" is actually a personality disorder type of maladjustment/mental illness that begins in childhood.

I have a problem with giving awards to all children in a class, even if they earned F's on their assignments, just so that they will not have bruised self-esteem. Criticism needs to be contructive, but children need to learn how to improve. It's OK to feel a little bit bad about a bad grade and to take that feeling and use it to improve. it is nto OK for a teacher to upbrade a child about a bad grade - it their job to explain to the child how to improve his or her learning.  Not everyone is in the top 10% of the class, but everyone can learn to feel good about themselves by doing their best. 

 The school drop-out rate in Columbus Ohio is 50% and on the west side of town it is 70% since the awards-for-everyone program began 10 years ago. Kids are passed on to the next grade without being able to read. We have some 12th graders that read at the 3rd grade level. They are then very surprised when they cannot graduate from high school without a passing grade on the Ohio Graduation Exam. 

In martial arts schools in this area, there are many schools that simply sell the parents the next belt rank for their child (kids don't have to know anything). On child a few years back in Columbus was killed at age 7 because he attacked someone while he was outside playing in his uniform and black belt -- He jumped out of a tree onto someone that paniced and struck the child without looking to see who it was.   

 I guess I could go on an on about this....but GOOD HUB!


Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 17, 2007:

Interesting, George. I don't think there is anything wrong with telling our children they're beautiful, as long as we tell them other things that are important about them as well. Being kind, loving, compassionate, hard working, and intelligent are all very important too. The woman at Costco sounded a bit rude, but parents can be very protective. If her children were older they may think that their mother thinks them ugly. That can be devastating too, especially in our culture. Thanks for the comment! ;)

gredmondson from San Francisco, California on October 17, 2007:


I so enjoyed reading this. I was at Costco a few days ago, and a young woman had two children in her cart. Both of the children, a boy and a girl were extraordinarily beautiful children, close together in age, about 2 - years old. I said something like, "People must tell you often how beautiful those children are." And she replied with something like, "And more importantly, they tell me how well behaved they are when we come to Costco." Praising effort, patience, and kindness is important as those are the characteristics we want to see continuing. Receiving praise for being physically attractive (pretty is as pretty does) is different. I think it is the role of parents (and grandparents!) to let their children know that they are pretty/handsome, and not the role of teachers (and I was probably out of line with my comment at Costco) and others to praise attractiveness.

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 17, 2007:

Earth Angel,

Thank you for your comments! What is also interesting is that researchers who told students that their brain is a muscle and it needs to be exercised increased their math scores. Effort is so important and so is failing and trying again. ;)

Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on October 17, 2007:


I saw the forum on beauty and it inspired this hub. ;)

Earth Angel on October 17, 2007:

Great Hub Robin!! I, too am conscious of how children are being raised!! And concerned!! As you so eloquently pointed out, there is a HUGE difference between praising a child for something they mostly inherited, like looks and/or intelligence, and a job well done for which they are mostly responsible!! The first undermines self-esteem while the later builds self-esteem!! The first creates celebrities like Paris Hilton, the later creates celebrities like Oprah Winfrey!! Blessings, Earth Angel!!

Paul Edmondson from Burlingame, CA on October 17, 2007:

Ha, I started this thread in the forums about the same subject.

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