Stop telling your kids they’re clever and talented

How you praise your kids is crucial to setting them up for a happy life, says Ilona Boniwell. But constantly telling them they are smart is not the way to do it


Stop telling your kids they’re clever and talented

Are you inclined to tell your child how smart they are? What a ‘clever boy’ or ‘clever girl’ you might say. If so, keep reading – this kind of praise could actually be setting your child up for an unfulfilled and anxious life.

Research suggests when children are praised for how intelligent they are, they become focused on retaining this label and on being judged well by others rather than on continuing to learn. 

According to Stanford University’s Professor Carol Dweck, this is due to ‘intelligent praise’ supporting what is known as a ‘fixed mindset’ in children. Based on her empirical research, most of us fall into two basic ‘mindsets’ – fixed or growth.

The fixed mindset upholds the idea that people’s ability is fairly fixed and not open to change. So, people are either intelligent, sporty, arty, good at maths – or they aren’t.

The growth mindset has a different starting point. It sees people with huge potential for growth and development. It accepts that a small minority are born with unusual levels of talent or ability and, at the other end of the spectrum, with severe learning difficulties, but generally believes that around 95 per cent of the population falls between these two extremes and that, with enough motivation, concentration and effort, they can become better at almost anything.

This view is supported by neuroscientific evidence showing people’s brains keep making new connections until the day they die.

These very different views of people have enormous implications for how children will learn, achieve goals and bounce back from difficulties.

Someone with a fixed mindset views goals in terms of a successful outcome. They believe potential can be measured (eg, low marks equals not smart). For this mindset, both success and failure cause anxiety, as the person has to keep up the standard they have created and becomes afraid of failure.

When someone of a fixed mindset can’t solve a problem, they tend to withdraw their efforts entirely because they interpret the situation as, ‘I’m not smart enough for this, so what’s the point in trying?’ They see having to make an effort as a reflection of low ability, as effort means they were never good at it anyway.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, focuses on learning goals, mastery and competence. It recognises that scores and marks reflect how a person is doing now, but do not measure their potential. They view effort as a necessary part of success and try harder when faced with a setback. For them, effort equals success, so it’s not surprising that these kids usually succeed in increasing both their performance and enjoyment of tasks. Praise for strategies, effort and process rather than outcome, will help children become more motivated to persevere and be more resilient.

It can take a while to change a fixed mindset into a growth one. Unfamiliar with this research when my oldest kids were little, I praised them for intelligence far more than necessary and, as a result, spent years getting them to appreciate the value of effort. So don’t give up!

Dr Ilona Boniwell is course leader for the new International MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. She lives with her husband, their toddler and four teenagers from previous marriages. Got a QUESTION for Ilona? Email, with ‘ILONA’ in the subject line

More inspiration:

Read more on mindset in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential (Robinson, £7.99)

Browse and click on the ‘mindset’ section

Learn more about positive psychology by taking an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University

Photograph: iStock