Overpraising Children For Being Smart? Proceed With Caution

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

A passage in the recent story about Neal Goyal, the former Chicago hedge fund manager who wasn’t managing funds so much as draining them, stopped me in my tracks.

“The investors thought I was a genius,” Goyal, 34, wrote in a letter to a judge. (He was sentenced to six years in prison for stealing more than $9 million.)

“They told me that I would be the next big shot in finance. That I was a wonder kid. The notoriety from my small circle of investors, family and friends was too exciting to risk losing.”

It’s the nightmare scenario woven throughout, or at least implied throughout, countless articles devoted to the perils of praising our kids: Keep telling them they’re geniuses, and they’ll do everything in their power to protect that label, including, in Goyal’s case, lie, cheat and steal.


The Atlantic reported recently from the Aspen Ideas Festival that a growing movement is afoot in parenting and education circles to retire the word “smart” altogether.
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“The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh, good, I’m smart,” James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic, reported. “And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh, no, I’m not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.”

In Goyal’s case, an extreme case if ever there was one, he fudged his earnings reports after a lousy quarter, showing a 12 percent return instead of the truthful 4 percent. In less prison-worthy examples, kids shy away from challenges at which they’re not guaranteed to excel, for fear of calling their smarty-pants titles into question.

In a groundbreaking, oft-cited study, Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck presented a group of fifth-graders with a relatively easy IQ test. When they were presented with their scores, all of which were high, half the children were told, “You must be smart at this.” The other half were told, “You must have worked really hard.”

When they were offered a choice of second tests, one that was harder and promised to teach them something new, or one that was as easy as the first test, 90 percent of kids praised for working hard chose the more difficult test. The majority of kids praised for being smart chose the easier test.

Does that make them future criminals? Of course not. But it should give us pause about the way we talk to our kids.

“When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart; don’t risk making mistakes,” Dweck wrote in her study.

I once interviewed Dweck, whose work is mentioned in the Atlantic piece, about the risks involved in overpraising our kids.
“People say to me, ‘But my child really is a genius,'” she told me. “And I say, ‘Well, there are an awful lot of geniuses who never went on to do anything. Do you really want to foster that?'”

She said parents have the power to stop burying their children in glowing, hard-to-live-up-to labels, starting with “smart.” She and other experts encourage parents and educators to celebrate mistakes and missteps and mediocre grades, all signs of a child’s willingness to try something outside his or her comfort zone.

“Kids are used to going into different environments and figuring out what’s valued, how to succeed and what’s going to be praised,” she said. “They’re going to pick up quickly that you no longer value the easy stuff and you now value doing the hard thing and sticking with it.”

The Atlantic article quoted Stanford University mathematics education professor Jo Boaler, who said, “Mistakes grow your brain.”

“When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes,” Boaler said in Aspen, “it can change their entire trajectory.”

Fortunately for me (and my kids), I don’t have to look far for mistakes to point out and celebrate: I make them all the time.

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