Recently, I’ve been avoiding telling my son that he’s smart. Not because he’s not smart. Because I think he is smart, at least going by his maths scores, which are usually excellent.

But I decided to heed the growing movement in education that says children should not be praised for innate intelligence or gifts. Talk about talent is almost taboo in some circles.

I read about these ideas a while back but it’s taken me a while to get on board. Because weren’t we supposed to praise our children to encourage them? Weren’t we supposed to cut down criticism, commonplace in previous generations, and boost self-esteem? And isn’t talent something so prized, so desired in our children?

Certainly, self-esteem is crucial and talent is valuable. But dishing out praise carelessly causes problems, so it seems.

“Process praise” rather than “person praise” is key – praise the effort, strategies, initiative or ingenuity shown (the process), rather than the person’s talents or gifts.

So telling your child, “Wow, you really worked hard on this” is heaps better than saying, “Oh you’re so smart”.

Children may feel great to be described as “smart”, but the trouble is, they may then hang onto that label at the expense of learning. They may be less likely to try harder and more likely to avoid struggle. Whereas praising children for effort encourages them to continue making an effort, to persevere and overcome challenges.

So while I do believe that my son has a natural affinity for maths (even at three he loved numbers), I’ll praise him for the enthusiastic effort he puts into it rather than any ability. Because even those with the greatest gifts still have to work at them. Mozart practised music. A lot.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist who first researched this a few decades ago, found people generally have two kinds of mindsets: fixed or growth.

People with a “fixed mindset” believe some people are smart and others just aren’t. They believe in inherent intelligence, which implies something unchanging and inborn, like genes. Those with a “growth mindset” believe effort counts and accept the inevitability of some struggle and failure.

Dweck explains her ideas in her book and website, Mindset. The fixed mindset people believe their qualities are “carved in stone”. They come from a helpless state rather than a mastery-oriented one.

But with a growth mindset, brains and talent are “just a starting point” and qualities can be cultivated through dedication and effort. She believes everyone can grow through application.

In various studies observing how the performance of schoolchildren changed with the type of praise received, she found children praised for effort performed better. They held hard work in high regard and dwelt less on their failures.

In one study, she followed students over a few years. She found the gap between students of comparable standards in maths widened over years depending on their mindset. As the maths got harder, the growth mindset students overtook the fixed mindset ones.

In another study in Colombia University, fixed mindset freshmen said they would avoid subjects they did not do well in, whereas the growth mindset ones said they would work harder.

In an article in Scientific American, she describes teaching children in workshops that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. In one workshop, an unruly boy in the class looked up and said, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?”

And that’s the best thing about all this. Intelligence is less fixed than you think. Research increasingly shows that intelligence can be changed or improved.

In fact, IQs have increased considerably in industrialised countries over the last century, something known as the “Flynn effect”. James Flynn, who first discovered this, attributes this to “everything about the modern world”. Better education, nurturing and vocabulary are factors, but so is the ability to see things hypothetically rather than just in the concrete world around us.

As Flynn says in an interview with the American Psychological Association, “In the past, people’s minds were utilitarian. They weren’t interested in hypotheticals…. But today, people have donned scientific spectacles.”

So you see, being smart is a capricious quality. Better we focus on tenacity and grit. Indeed, that may be the best thing parents and teachers give children to rise over challenges in life.


 

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.