How to Overcome the Damage from "Smart" Praise

In Nurture Shock, a whole chapter was devoted to the fact that if you tell your child he’s smart, it will be his undoing.  In Brain Rules for Baby, we were warned again to praise effort, not intelligence:

“Kids praised for effort complete 50 percent more hard math problems than kids praised for intelligence.”

The message is loud and clear, and it is a rule that isn’t hard for most parents can follow once we learn to adjust the way we speak to our children.

But that isn’t the problem.

The problem is the many other people that your child meets who instinctively tell him he’s smart.

Everywhere we go, people are telling Gavin (and Gareth, too!) – “Oh, you’re such a clever boy!”  The praise comes so easily and freely even when they haven’t done anything “clever”. Just for being there, they can be praised for being so smart. I’ve already told family members to reserve smart comments and focus on effort, but how do you stop random strangers telling your children they are smart? As much as I would like to tell them where they can send their praise, it is not in my nature to be caustic because that would be plain rude. I have to remind myself that they don’t know what the science says, smile politely and walk away, but that doesn’t change the fact that my boys have heard that they are smart.

What can you do? Well, if these people are close enough to you, you can explain the science to them. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is the sales lady at the supermarket, or the waiter at the restaurant that offer such praise. Besides, the damage has already been done. You cannot protect your children from smart praise because for many people, it is a means for making conversation – if you can’t think of something to say, just tell the kids they are so smart. Unless you keep your child in a bubble, he will be told again and again that he is smart.

Bed Time Chats

I often have a little bed time chat with Gavin about important lessons in life I want him to remember. I find that devoting a special time of the day when there are no other distractions is a good time to raise important topics you want your child to be aware about. Lately, I’ve been talking to him about the importance of working hard and studying hard. I also address the praise he often hears from others about being smart and remind him that it is because he has worked hard to learn these things. I talk about the brain being a muscle that needs exercise to become stronger and I tell him it is okay to make mistakes because that is how we learn.

After he has fallen asleep, I use Shichida’s 5 minute suggestion (which appears to be similar to the concept of autosuggestion which you can read more about from Coachmi) to reinforce my message to him.

Is it enough to undo the ill-effects of smart praise?  I honestly don’t know. But I’m sure it is better than doing nothing.

What do you do to minimise the effects of others praising your children for being “clever”?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “How to Overcome the Damage from "Smart" Praise

  1. good that you covered this topic. my mil constantly praise my daughter smart for doing this and that, and lately my daughter is frustrated whenever she can’t do something,, and just does not like to be corrected. i’ll try your method tonight.. thanks!

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  2. I don’t think it’s going to be the end of them if a stranger tells them they’re smart every once and a while. In fact, I would be surprised if it had any affect on them, in the long term, at all.

    With you working hard day in and day out to teach them values, build their characters, and emphasize the value of hard work and effort, and on top of that having all of your family and close friends on board with the same, I’m pretty sure you don’t have anything to worry about!

    I think the damage is done when parents are constantly ingraining into their children’s heads that they are “so smart” (just by being, rather than by trying). A comment by a stranger every once in a great while isn’t going to have the same effect.

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  3. Elizabeth – I’m inclined to agree if it was every once in a while. The only reason I brought it up was because I have been hearing it a lot lately. It must be a local thing because I didn’t notice so much of this when we were in Australia. Here, we often get random strangers interacting with our children – the waiters at restaurants, the check out chicks at the supermarket, the promoters in the mall… I’ve been hearing the “clever” compliment so frequently that it’s beginning to annoy me.

    I’ve also noticed that Gavin does give up easily and often claims he can’t do things because it’s “so hard”. In fact, he behaves similarly to Irene’s daughter. I’ve been trying to understand how much of it is related to the fact that he’s trying to deal with shared attention with a younger sibling and how much of it might be related to the fact that people often tell him he’s smart just for being.

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