Encouraging Kids to make an Effort

"Why Not?" Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©

Eighty-five percent of parents think that telling their children they’re smart builds their self-confidence. Yet, praising children for their intelligence, rather than their effort, saps their motivation.

Through 30 years of research, Professor Dweck of Stanford found that the key to success in school or work is believing that intelligence is developed rather than simply inborn and fixed.

Trying to look smart

Believing that intelligence is fixed leads to a desire to look smart. People who think intelligence is inborn often avoid challenges, fearing they’ll be proved not to be smart. They tend to feel threatened by the success of others, to give up easily and to ignore useful feedback. As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential over time.

Desire to learn

People who believe that intelligence is developed through cultivating skills tend to make greater effort to learn regardless of their talent. They tend to embrace challenges, to persist in the face of setbacks, and to see effort as the pathway to mastery. When people view intelligence as a learned skill, they welcome feedback and find inspiration in the success of others. They have a greater sense of free will and accomplishment. As a result, such people tend to reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

Failure or opportunity to learn?

People who face setbacks by thinking “I failed, because I’m not intelligent” become discouraged even in areas where they are capable. In contrast, those who are taught that effort is what counts view setbacks as challenges rather than as failures. Instead of “I failed,” they think, “This didn’t work, but I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.”

Why not to tell your kids they’re smart

Telling children they’re smart promotes focusing on self-image. Each setback becomes a personal threat to their image as “smart”. As a result, they tend to pursue activities they know they can perform and to avoid experiences in which they can learn and grow. It also leads them to tend to exaggerate and sometimes lie about scores and achievements to maintain the image of themselves that they think merits being loved.

Performance anxiety

While we would never want to tell children that they are not smart, any labels, even positive ones can be harmful. Telling children they’re smart leads to performance anxiety, because they worry that less than great performance indicates that they are not smart.

Giving up

Labeling kids as smart also leads to a tendency to give up quickly, because the implication is that if something doesn’t come easily, it’s because of a lack of intelligence (or other innate talents). If, instead, effort is emphasized, then difficulties can be faced by tenacity and by learning the appropriate skills.

The key to success

While there’s no question that people vary in their innate intellectual, emotional, and physical abilities, there’s tremendous room for development in all these areas for any given individual. People who learn to view intelligence as learned ability increase their performance. This is true for any area in which motivation and achievement matter, such as parenting, education, business management, and personal development.

The power of changing one’s mindset is demonstrated in a recent study by Dweck of low-achieving seventh graders. Those students who were trained to adopt a growth mind-set regarding intelligence showed great improvement in motivation and math grades. The students in the control group showed no improvement despite other interventions.

Dweck’s tips for parents from Mindset:

1. Focus on the processes your children use, such as effort, rather than labeling them as intelligent or talented.

Example: “That homework was so long and involved. I admire the way you concentrated and finished it.”

Example: “That picture has many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”

Example: “You put so much thought into that essay. It makes me think about Shakespeare in a new way.”

2. When your child faces difficulties, give constructive feedback that helps the child understand how to fix the problem, rather than labeling or excusing the child.

Example: “Show me how you tried to do this math problem, and we’ll see what step might help.”

Example: “What teacher or friend could you call to find out how to approach this problem?”

3. Pay attention to the goals you set for your children; expanding skills and knowledge is a goal that can be achieved through effort and persistence.

Example: “If you study 30 minutes a day for the next three days, the Spanish test will be doable. I can help you with flash cards if you like.”

Example: “Could you speak to your teacher about making up the missing homework?”

4. It is good to love your children unconditionally. Praise, however, can make a child feel as though they are only worthy of love if they always please their parents.

Example: Instead of “you’re so smart” and “you’re a good kid,” unconditional and specific, personal emotions might sound like, “I love to see you ice skate with such joy,” or “I’m happy to see you,” or “I enjoyed how you brought the story alive with dialogue.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

This article is based on Marina Krakovsky’s article “The Effort Effect” in Stanford magazine and Dr. Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

Read “Parental Boasting for Self-Esteem: ‘Honey, I was just telling the Jones how smart and athletic you are.’”

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