Why parents should stop praising children for being clever and start celebrating effort

Does calling a child clever teach them unhelpful behaviour?

From fighting for vegetables to be polished off the dinner plate to battling to keep to a bedtime routine, parenting is a tough, never-ending job allowing mums and dads only scraps of time to recuperate and evaluate before it all starts again the next day.

So, considering whether you are preparing your child for a stable and successful adulthood can be clouded by the daily struggle to simply keep them healthy and happy.

But, evidence suggests that parents can use simple techniques to help their child build their confidence in what they can achieve. 

Dr Sam Wass, a developmental psychologist based at the University of East London and Cambridge University, recently told The Independent that studies show that parents should praise their children for trying hard rather than being clever. 

“If you praise children for being clever they start shying away from hard challenges that might disprove the idea that they’re clever. So it’s a bad thing to do whereas praising a child for effort is a safe thing to do because a child is always in control of how much effort it puts in," he said. 

Dr Carol Dweck, who is a leading researcher in motivation, boils the difference to promoting a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset”.   

Praising a child for reading a book and describing them as clever would be an example of a fixed mindset. On the contrary, congratulating a child for working hard in order to learn how to read the book would be considered a growth mindset. 

This processes emphasises the importance of learning, rather than celebrating seemingly inherent talents for certain subjects and activities. 

A 2007 study at a New York City school co-authored by Dr Dweck suggested that children who were encouraged according to a fixed mindset saw a drop in their maths grades over two years, while children praised using growth mindset methods improved. 

The paper published in the ‘Child Development’ journal, which involved 373 7th grade students, showed that promoting the idea that intelligence is malleable was the key to success. 

Explaining the study in a video for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Dr Dweck said: “They [students] had entered seventh grade with just about identical achievement test scores. 

"But by the end of the first term, their grades jumped apart and continued to diverge over the next two years. The only thing that differed were their mindsets."

"The number one goal for kids in the fixed mindset is 'look smart at all times and at all costs.' 

"But in a growth mindset, where they believe intelligence can be developed, their cardinal rule is 'LEARN at all times and at all costs.'”

And a growth mindset can be nurtured from the beginning of a child’s life, or introduced later in life but it becomes harder to change attitudes. 

Sal Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy non-profit education organisation, told Upworthy

"I think you can start from as soon as they can understand language. I think children naturally have a growth mindset."

This approach can therefore be applied to any scenario, from encouraging your children to unlocking your own abilities that you though you'd never have. 

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