Why Calling Your Child “Smart” Can Backfire

The #1


As parents, we want our children to be successful and confident.


Pre-school, kindergarten and first grade are often positive experiences for our children; they like school and are eager to learn. When kids experience success during the early school years, we parents feel confident that the road ahead will be smooth.


But, like most things in life, the unexpected is bound to happen; at some point, our child will experience frustration and know discouragement.


Sometimes it is around reading…or maybe math…possibly in p.e. And then there is the whole challenge of managing friendships and the ever-changing social dynamics of the elementary school years. It is inevitable that something goes awry as our children move through their development and their worlds become more complex.


Some amount of failure is inevitable.


Often, these first “bumps in the road” can cause our kids to lose interest and motivation in school. Their self-confidence can take a nosedive.


But what can we, as parents, do about it?


Let’s start with understanding the experience from our child’s perspective.


During their early years, our children often get the message that they are “smart” when – and because – things came easily to them. In a child’s mind, his achievements define him as smart; therefore, anything that requires effort could make him not smart. In other words, any lack of success may cause him to doubt his ability, since his ego is closely tied to his performance. Under this mindset, many kids avoid challenges because making mistakes is a threat to their sense of self.


Standford psychology professor Carol Dweck oversaw one research project in which two groups of children were given fairly easy math problems to solve. One group was praised for being “smart” when they got the problems right, the other group was praised for their efforts. Afterward, both groups of children were given the choice to try harder math problems. The group that was praised for their hard work was much more likely to give the tough problems a try. The “smart” kids were afraid to fail.


Sure. But, all this first-brush-with-failure stuff provides a great opportunity to teach our children about effort, perseverance and self-discipline.


As parents, we can stress to our children the importance of process over product, of effort over triumphs. We can tell our children stories about our own achievements that were the result of hard work, learning new skills and accepting help and feedback from others.


Does your child have a real-life hero or role model?


Chances are, this person faltered (often!) before achieving rock star status with their craft. Let your child’s idol serve as an example of the power of effort.


This summer’s Olympic Games can serve as a great influence in your child’s understanding of outstanding effort.


We can also share stories of other great athletes, musicians, scientists, innovators and world leaders who stumbled before achieving success.


Examples of successful people who mastered their fields due to practice and perseverance:


Thomas Edison

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Charles Darwin

Oprah Winfrey

Walt Disney

Steven Spielberg

Henry Ford

R.H. Macy

Soichiro Honda

Bill Gates

Albert Einstein

The Wright Brothers

Winston Churchill

Lucille Ball

Jerry Seinfeld

Dr. Seuss

Steven King

J.K. Rowling

Elvis Presley

Michael Jordan


The list goes on and on…


I once heard someone say “Want to double your rate of success? Then triple your rate of failure.” Such a truism that we rarely hear in a world obsessed with talent, glory, fame, trophies and awards.


Enjoy the rest of the fleeting summer, my friends!

Ask Heather

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