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Want kids who are resilient and successful? Praise their hard work, not their intelligence, says researcher

Parents: If you want your children to succeed in the world, don’t keep telling them they’re smart. Praise them instead for being hard working and persistent.

That’s the key message from Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose four decades of research on “the follies associated with thinking and talking about intelligence as a fixed trait” is profiled this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Writes reporter David Glenn:

Dweck and her collaborators have demonstrated that praising children for their intelligence can backfire. When young people’s sense of self-worth is bound up in the idea that they are smart — a quality they come to understand as a genetic blessing from the sky — at least three bad things can happen. Some students become lazy, figuring that their smarts will bail them out in a pinch. Others conclude that the people who praise their intelligence are simply wrong, and decide that it isn’t worth investing effort in homework. Still others might care intensely about school but withdraw from difficult tasks or tie themselves in knots of perfectionism. …
It is much wiser, Dweck says, to praise children for work and persistence. People nearly always perform better if they focus on things they can control, such as their effort, rather than things they cannot.

Dweck has been encouraging educators at all age levels (including those at colleges and universities) to encourage students “to think of their mental skills as malleable, rather than as properties fixed at birth. No more saying, ‘I can’t major in chemistry because I’m just not wired for math,’” writes Glenn.

Does intervention help?
Dweck’s findings about how learned helplessness gets in the way of students’ academic performance have been compelling. In a 1978 experiment, writes Glenn, “Dweck found that children who described their own memory or intelligence in fixed ways were much more likely to give up on a difficult pattern-identification task than otherwise-similar children who did not make such statements.”

And in “a landmark series of studies with Claudia M. Mueller during the 1990s,” he adds, “Dwick demonstrated that praising children for their intelligence, rather than for their effort, often leads them to give up when they encounter setbacks. Such children tend to become preoccupied with how their performance compares with that of their peers, rather than with finding new strategies to improve their own work.”

But not all researchers agree that simple intervention — getting students to think of intelligence as “incremental” rather than fixed — can necessary change attitudes — or behavior. A University of Michigan study published last year found that even students who harbor incremental beliefs about intelligence develop dysfunctional academic behavior — if the students’ self-worth is tied to how well they do in school.

Reports Glenn:

Altering students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence may not help much … if they do not also reduce their general ego-investment in schooling. “A glib way of putting it is to say, ‘Get over yourself,’” says [psychologist Jennifer Crocker, one of the study’s authors]. “If you want to stop acting in self-defeating ways, then think about how your schoolwork will help people outside of yourself.”

To read the entire article about Dweck and her research, go here.

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