What’s wrong with telling kids they’re smart?

We’ve all admired how kids seem to be a natural at one thing or another. Most likely, we’ve given praises such as “You’re a natural,” or “You’re born to do this!” There is no doubt that these praises for kids’ natural talents are well-meaning and heartfelt.

However, this type of praise may be doing more harm than good. Rather, studies show that praising hard work rather than natural talent makes a huge impact on overall achievement. By praising effort, we are teaching kids that their performance is due to their effort. We also indicate that performance is a learning process that involves mistakes and taking risks.

When we praise natural talent, we teach kids that their performance has little to do with the amount of effort they put in. Instead, we give them the impression that talent is natural and effort has little to do with their success.

Two different views

There are two types of goal orientations: mastery and performance. Mastery orientation, in other words, is “practice makes perfect.” With mastery orientation, the amount of effort and practice is related to success. Kids who have a mastery orientation tend to focus more on trying their best and less on how they measure up to their peers. Performance orientation is the belief in natural abilities. Kids who have a performance orientation tend to compare themselves to their peers and are less likely to relate success with practice.

Where’s the evidence?

A study by researchers at Columbia University demonstrates the importance of praising effort versus natural talent. In this study, 412 fifth graders participated in a series of tests. After the first test, students received compliments for their good work, intelligence, or effort. For the second test, every student received a bad score, regardless of their real one. 

Afterward, students were asked to complete a task of their choice. Those who received praise for their effort were more likely to choose challenging tasks than those who received praise for their intelligence.

The results of this study demonstrate how different types of praise affects how kids react to challenges and failure. Those who contribute their effort to their success are more likely to embrace challenges and learn from their mistakes. On the other hand, those who contribute their abilities to their success tend to stick to things they know they can do. Discouragement may lead these kids to undermine their performance and give up before reaching their full potential.

Here’s what we can do better…

In conclusion, telling kids that their hard work pays off encourages them to persevere through challenges and take risks. They also compare themselves to their peers less and focus more on their individual performance. Instead of telling kids they’re a natural at something, we can say “You’ve made such an improvement,” or “I can tell you’ve been practicing.” Small words make such an incredible difference in the way kids perceive themselves. Giving kids a growth mindset may be the key to success.