We Can’t Tell Our Kids They’re ‘Smart’ Anymore, And OMFG I Give Up

by Meredith Bland
Image via Shutterstock

Study says telling kids they’re smart makes them more likely to cheat

Parenting studies can be incredibly helpful and enlightening, and you can’t help but appreciate the work of researchers whose goal is for us to do the best we can for our children. That said, a new study has found that telling our kids they’re smart makes them more likely to cheat and I am going to go ahead and start addressing my children in grunts because no words are safe anymore.

The study, which is titled, “Praising Young Children for Being Smart Promotes Cheating,” was published last week in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from the United States, Canada, and China had 300 preschoolers in China play a guessing game. They praised some of the kids for being smart, some for their performance, and some got no praise at all. They found that when the researchers left the room, the kids who were praised for being smart were more likely to cheat than the kids in either of the other two groups.

This kind of study is based on the work of Carol Dweck of Stanford, who has spent forty years studying how children with a “growth mindset” — or, those who think their intelligence can develop as opposed to it being fixed and innate — tend to be more successful and motivated than kids who are told that they are smart or talented. We have no reason to doubt the validity of this study. It makes perfect sense that the “smart” kids would feel more pressure to continue to be right, because being wrong would mean that they weren’t smart. I’m not calling this “junk science” by any stretch. What I am saying is this makes my head hurt, and pretty soon our kids are going to do a math problem correctly, look to us for praise, and we are going to stare at them with a vacant face and dead eyes and say, “You added.”

When you read these studies about how to best praise our kids, they make a lot of sense — but that doesn’t change the fact that many parents now feel like they’re going into conversations with their three-year-olds as though they’re negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages: very carefully, and under a lot of stress.

There are countless resources out there that give us advice on how to best compliment our kids. An article in Parents Magazine called “How To Praise Your Kids” gave parents ten tips for praise, which include: don’t overdo it, emphasize the effort, use body language, tell the truth, and avoid sarcasm. Those seem fair (especially that last one), but until it comes naturally it does make complimenting your kids feel a little clinical.

Child: “Mommy, look at this drawing I did! That’s you and me and Daddy!”

Mom: (checks notes, clears throat) “Adam, you made a drawing. That looks like a sun. Of course, you know that suns don’t actually have faces. But you clearly used a lot of yellow. And it looks like you worked really hard drawing me and Daddy, even though people generally have more than three fingers and our heads are not three times the size of the rest of our bodies. I applaud the attempt, however, and believe that with more practice and hard work you could do an even better drawing. Now run along. Mommy loves your efforts.”

It’s also kind of hilarious when you consider the fact that if another adult spoke to you like this, you’d think they were among the most cleansing and ph-balanced of all douchebags. And if your boss did this stuff, you’d be convinced you were about to be fired. Imagine if you finished a big project at work, presented it to your boss, and they just smiled and patted you on the back? Or if they said something like, “Thank you. It looks like you worked really hard on this.” You’d be cleaning out your desk before lunch.

No one is arguing that praise is a bad thing, but nothing should hold a parent back from complimenting their kids, either. If you’re hesitating before saying something nice to your child, they see that too. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, and it makes sense that saying, “Wow, you’ve been working really hard at that song! I’m impressed,” is more helpful than, “That was the best version of Hot Cross Buns ever. And I don’t mean just by you, I mean in the history of the world. You are a genius.” But our kids should know that we think the sun rises and sets on them and we shouldn’t hold back from telling them so as long as it’s balanced with healthy doses of honesty and encouragement.