October 23rd, 2015

Don't Call Your Child 'Clever'

For years now parents have understood the need to build strong self-esteem in their kids and one of the ways we do this is to tell them they’re clever when they achieve something, whether its walking unaided or tying a shoelace or reading a sentence. We still might be saying it to our teens who’ve figured out algebra or penned a good persuasive piece of writing. 

Of course it’s a good idea to encourage our children but what if our words are having the opposite effect? What if calling them ‘clever’ actually discourages them from trying or stretching themselves?

Research, by Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, Carol Dweck, shows that focusing on a child’s intelligence or talent can be counter-productive and lead to the development of a mindset that actually prevents them from achieving. Studies have shown that when a child is praised for his intelligence he develops a ‘fixed’ mindset –he thinks that a person is given a fixed amount of talent and intelligence at birth, and whatever they do simply demonstrates the 'cleverness' that they possess. That child thinks that if she is ‘clever’ she shouldn’t have to work too hard at something. People with a 'fixed' mindset tend to avoid exploration and challenge. They take the easy option rather than running the risk that they will prove that they are not in fact ‘clever’. 

People with a fixed mindset have no way of responding to mistakes or failures but tend to give up. My friend’s son is suffering from this way of thinking as he approaches his final year of schooling –he simply believes that he shouldn’t have to apply himself because he is ‘clever’. The result is he’s not doing as well as he could be. 

In contrast others have a 'growth’ mindset, which means the belief that a person's natural capabilities and talents can be developed through application and effort. Good news, eh? The risk-taking and struggle that is inherent in all learning is therefore not regarded as frightening, and more real learning can take place. When faced with mistakes or failures the growth mindset people believe that they can overcome through perseverance. They shall conquer the world! 

So how can we encourage our kids without developing a fixed mindset?

We need to change the way we use praise. 

Praise effort, attitude, strategies and improvement

Parents can encourage a growth mindset by not calling their children clever and instead paying attention to the effort the child employs, the improvements they make and the attitude they bring to a task. “I noticed that when the first approach you tried with your science project didn’t work you tried another tactic. How’s it going?” “You kept on trying with these sums even though you didn’t find it easy. I call that persevering. Your efforts have paid off – five out of six are correct. I wonder if you can work out how to correct the sixth one. 

If self-esteem is connected to results it becomes too fragile. Instead of focusing on results we can notice and comment on effective strategies our children use such as when they look up a spelling word in the dictionary or go back over notes before a test or by keeping an organised folder.  Paying lots of attention to grades (and sporting outcomes) can make the child feel that our approval is dependent on them always getting good results which might feel unattainable. When your daughter comes home from a netball match don’t let your first question be ‘did you win?’, but ‘Did you enjoy the game? Did you play your best? Did you listen to the coach? Did her tips about shooting work? Were you able to set up some goals? How did the team play together?  

When we say “you’re a brilliant artist”, they know they’re not ‘brilliant’; they think of someone who can draw better than them and discount our praise. It also creates pressure to always be the ‘brilliant artist’.

This was true for me growing up – I knew that I would only retain my father’s interest while I continued to perform well academically. It made it feel as if his love for me was conditional. 

Describe the positive behaviours you see

- focus on the positives.  “You’ve remembered to bring your homework diary home.”  “You got on your bike again even though you fell off just now.” 

Notice and mention the tiny steps in the right direction

- be specific and detailed. It shows that the parent is paying attention, it is accurate, relevant and persuasive as well as non-evaluative. “You’re sitting at the table at the right time and you’ve got all your books out. You look like you’re

getting ready to start your homework.” 

Use praise focused on the individual

Use non-comparative praise – in order to avoid children becoming conceited or thinking they’re better than others. It is also necessary so that kids know we appreciate them just for themselves, not compared to anyone else. This reduces the unhealthy sort of competition.

“Your good result in your spelling test reflects the hard work that you put into it. This is the best you’ve done so far” not “You did better than anyone else.”


Parents can also encourage and model a healthy attitude to mistakes –accepting that as part of being human and looking for learning each time.

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November 23rd, 2010

Don't call your child clever!

What kind of so-called parenting experts say don’t call your child clever? Since the sixties haven’t we been exhorted to extol the virtues of our children ad nauseam in the hope of building self esteem and encouraging desirable behaviours? When we want them to feel good about themselves we say well done darling, good girl. And if we think they’re not buying it or we really want to big them up we say ‘fantastic, marvellous, brilliant –you are so clever.’ What’s wrong with that?

Well, usually we say to parents that if they want their kids to have good self esteem and all the positive outcomes that go with that then we need to focus on what children do right more often than what they get wrong. Every parent knows this even though we sometimes have difficulty doing it –like when you’re trying to get them all out of the house and one is on a ‘go slow’ and the other two are complaining that they have to breathe the same air and you can’t find your car keys and NOBODY has got their shoes on!

But even when things are a little calmer we still feel an overwhelming urge to point out what’s wrong with what they’re doing. We’re not bad people but we’ve had decades of conditioning so forgive us if we mistakenly believe we need to highlight what they’ve done wrong in order to help them learn. In fact when we do that the children are apt to tune us out and lose their naturalmotivation to improve and to learn. So yes we do need to focus on the positives and praise our children. In fact  the ratio of positive to ‘improving’ should be about 9:1. John Gottman is a researcher who did a lot of work in the area of couples’ relationships. He found that there are a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. While you’re trying to remember when you last said something positive to your partner I would add that in the case of children parents should be praising even more frequently because we are actively trying to shape our children’s behaviour and form their characters. I would assert therefore that we parents should give 9 praises for every criticism/improving comment/correction / just pointing out what could be done differently.

So I’m clearly in favour of praise. But why can’t I tell my child he’s clever? Because he is you know –or at least I want him to do well. How can it hurt? In the past I would have said that any praise was better than none. But even then I would have admitted that there’s a good chance your child is not going to believe you when you say he’s clever so your words lose impact. We have always advocated using praise which is specific and descriptive to make it more credible and give the child enough information to allow them to repeat the positive behaviour on which you’re focusing. We would have said ‘clever girl’ isn’t a very effective form of praise but not actually harmful. And then I discovered some research by a psychologist in the US, Carol Dweck, that has made me even more careful about my choice of words when acknowledging children. Her research has shown that evaluative praise of this kind can actually be detrimental.

Professor Dweck’s findings show that the way adults praise children can determine whether they develop what she calls a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research was looking at motivation and perseverance in the face of set backs. Why do some people give up in the face of failure and others try again –it has to do, not surprisingly, with their beliefs about why they had failed. If you believe you failed because of lack of ability you are more inclined to give up than if you think the failure was down to lack of effort. Surely that’s an argument for telling kids they are able in order to motivate them?

Over the years Dweck developed a theory that learners could be classified as helpless vs mastery oriented. The former believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. “I call this a ‘fixed mind-set’. Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so….The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.… Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort.”

So how does praise affect this belief system? Contrary to adults’ good intentions when they praise, telling someone they are smart or clever actually contributes to the ‘fixed mindset’ whereas praising a child for trying hard or persevering focuses on the effort they’re making and allows them to develop a ‘growth mindset’. Dweck’s work with children in schools showed that confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material. The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little real regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

So how do we encourage a ‘growth mindset’ in our children? Show them examples of effort producing good results in your own modelling, in stories about other people but above all in their own endeavours. Praise them for not giving up, for trying a different strategy in the face of defeat, for working hard and practising, for improving and don’t focus so much on the outcome or achievement. If they do well in a test say “You must be really pleased -that’s a reflection of all the hard work you put in”. Above all never ever praise your child for being clever.

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