Can You Never Tell a Child She's Smart?

Ultimately, we want kids to believe they can get good at skills and talents if they practice and try hard. We want them to be persistent in the face of early difficulty. The work by psychologist Carol Dweck and others suggests that this adaptive mindset is dramatically a function of the praise kids hear.

If you've heard this research, you know the new rules: praise the process, not the person. Avoiding suggesting that success is due to innate qualities. Instead, steer the child's attention to strategies they can do again to repeat their success.

A question I often get is "Does this mean I can never tell my kid she's smart?" We're not perfect, we're enthusiastic, and the old "you're so smart!" just flies off the tongue. Where's the line? Is there a margin for error here?

In everyday life, kids hear a wide mix of praise types from parents, teachers, and other children. Even a kid who gets praised correctly by his parents ("you studied really hard, so you did well on the test") will hear innate-style praise at school ("You're so smart in math"). Or they'll hear "you're a great gymnast" and "you're a great drawer."

So it's a legitimate question: what's the impact of a real-life (less-than-perfect) mix of praise?

Well, an interesting experiment last year by two scholars provided some insight. Shannon Zentall and Bradley Morris did a series of drawing games with 135 kindergartners. Each kid heard a little story and then was asked to draw a certain object that had been in the story—an apple, a bus, a cat, a tree, etc. Each child worked through six stories and drawings.The first four drawings were praised, but with different mixes of praise. One group received only process praise, another mostly received process praise, with some person praise thrown in. Then there was a 50-50 group, and so on.

After the last two drawings, the teacher noted something imperfect about the illustration ("the cat is missing an ear" or "the bus is missing a wheel"). This was meant to challenge their hot streak of success. Did they crumble after being criticized?

To find out, the kids were asked four questions to measure their persistence in the face of this negative feedback. For instance, they were asked if tomorrow they'd like to draw again, or instead do something else. And they were asked what objects they'd draw next time. If they were willing to draw the objects they'd made mistakes on—trying to get better—that was scored as persistent. If they only wanted to draw objects they'd been praised for, that was scored as lacking persistence.

Just as Dweck's work would predict, the type of praise the children heard really affected their persistence. The most persistent kids were ones who never heard person praise and only heard process praise. As the mix of praise migrated from that end of the spectrum to the other, persistence fell. While most of the kids who received process praise were willing to draw tomorrow, only half of the kids who received person praise did.

But the downslide in persistence was not an even slope. Most children who heard 75 percent process praise (thus, 25 percent person praise) were almost as persistent as the top group. There was very little fall-off in persistence for this group. That fall-off was apparent when the praise mix was 50-50.

While parents and teachers certainly aren't perfect in their praise, this experiment provides helpful guidance: get the praise right 75 percent of the time or more, and a persistent mindset should take root.