How to Love Your Kids: Don’t Tell Them They’re Smart!

Do you want your kids to be confident? Do you want them to be hardy and resilient? Then don’t love them the way you’ve been told to.

In the last few decades, our idea of how to love our kids has been turned upside down. Before then, people thought about how to help their children develop the qualities that would help them thrive in the real world, such as self-reliance or perseverance. They taught them how to solve problems on their own, how to take on responsibilities and challenges, how to bounce back from failures.

But then the self-esteem movement came along and told us to love our kids in a new way. They told us to lavish praise on them and shield them from experiences that could undermine their confidence. This, they promised, would boost self-esteem and everything else would take care of itself. Our children would achieve in school and thrive in their lives. They were wrong.

In my work with educators I’ve found that unprecedented numbers of students cannot take constructive feedback on their work. How are they supposed to learn? In my work with coaches, I’ve found that many promising athletes don’t want to be coached—they just want to be praised. And in my work with business managers and leaders, I’ve learned that many young workers can hardly get through the day without frequent praise and support.

How did this happen and what can we do about it? It happened because, in the name of love, we gave our kids exactly the wrong kinds of praise– and shielded them from the very experiences that would help them thrive in the long run. My research shows that praising kids’ intelligence, talents, and abilities backfires. In our studies, we gave students problems to solve and then we praised different kids for different things. We praised some of them for their intelligence, and it impaired them.

After this kind of praise, kids avoided challenges or any tasks where they might make mistakes and look dumb. When we later gave them hard problems, they felt inept and couldn’t cope. Many children who were praised for their intelligence later lied about their poor performance. Over and over we have seen these kids blame others, become defensive, give up—everything but take the bull by the horns and try to improve.

Did you ever wonder why so many top students stop performing well in school when the work becomes difficult?  Earlier, they were told how smart they were as they coasted along.  Now that the work requires real effort, they worry they might not be so smart after all. Better not to try. Better to appear unmotivated than unintelligent.

So what’s the alternative? Process praise. In our research, some of the kids were praised for the process they engaged in—their effort or strategies—and wonderful things happened. They chose very challenging tasks to work on instead of easy ones where success was ensured. When we gave them really, really hard problems, instead of doubting themselves, they remained extremely engaged (many of them said these were their favorite problems!), and showed better and better performance.

What does process praise sound like? Good effort! (you kept at it and you made excellent progress). Good strategies! (you kept trying different ways until you found one that worked). Good studying! (you studied hard for that test and your grade really shows it). Great persistence! (you didn’t give up and you really got it).  Good focus! (you didn’t get distracted). Good choice—it’s going to be challenging but you’ll learn a lot!

Process praise tells kids that we value learning and improvement, not instant success or brilliance. This emboldens them to take on challenges. It opens them to critical feedback—it’s not about them, it’s about the process. It encourages resilience in the face of difficulty. And, instead of trying to hand children self-esteem on a silver platter, it teaches them how to build and maintain their own self-esteem.

In our new online program, Brainology, we teach kids that every time they stretch themselves to learn something new, they grow new connections in their brain and they can become smarter. Kids love the idea that their brain is growing new connections even when they are struggling or getting confused. Like process praise this message tells them we care about learning not instant genius, and like process praise, it creates self-reliance and resilience.

Nowadays it is almost synonymous with love and good parenting to praise our children’s greatness. It’s not easy to break that habit. But ask yourself, what kind of love do you want to give your children. Love that makes you feel good or love that gives them what they need to succeed in life?

By Carol S. Dweck