As parents, we are aware that we aren’t supposed to utter certain words around our children. Whether that’s because we don’t want them to repeat these words or because we aren’t ready to have the conversation about what these words mean, we’re wary of the language we use around them.
We’d never, for example, utter “the F word” because we don’t want our sponges to soak up the negative language and spew hatred at others without even knowing what they’re doing. Scientists suggest, however, that we might need to retire “the S word,” too.
And no, we’re not talking about sweets, sugar, or s’mores. We’re talking about a word that’s been thrown left and right to encourage children, build their confidence, and motivate them to work harder. Well, it turns out there’s nothing more sinister sounding than the word “smart.” We wish we were kidding.
Scientists argue that labeling children as smart comes with a myriad of unwanted consequences – from stunting their growth mindset and reducing their motivation to grow, and get better at things to making them vulnerable to failure and encouraging them to cheat out of fear they’re no longer going to be smart if they fail.
On one hand, every parent wants to raise confident children that don’t struggle with believing in their abilities. Saying things like “You’re so smart!” and “Wow, you’re so talented!” sounds like something that would build your children’s confidence and encourage them to keep on going.
On the other, saying things like that might have the opposite effect on your children and prevent them from exploring their abilities, talents, and tendencies. What are we, as parents supposed to do, then? Are we or are we not supposed to call our children smart?
Should you call your child smart?
With everything we’ve mentioned beforehand, the answer to that question should be a resounding no. We do, however, need to underline that there are layers to that answer that need to be addressed, too. Where do we even start?
When you repeat “You’re smart!” every time your child completes a task, responds to a question, or even shows an understanding of what you’re talking about, your child thinks “OK, good. I’m smart. I’m a good child.”
But then, we your child makes a mistake or gets a bad grade, they’re going to think “Oh no, I’m not smart after all. My parents will know I’m not smart. My peers will know I’m not smart.”
While that might not sound like a problem to you, your child might become reluctant to try new things, push themselves harder, and succeed out of fear of failure.
At the end of the day, children need reassurance to keep on going after they’ve messed up or made a mistake. But there are better ways to reassure them than to label them as “smart” or “not smart.”
What problems arise from calling your child smart?
Researchers agree that there’s a myriad of negative consequences that arise from calling your children smart.
As parents, we might have a hard time understanding what’s wrong with complimenting our children. However, we need to understand that there’s a difference between “You’re smart!” and “You did a great job.”
Researchers aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t compliment our children, they’re arguing that we should change the way we go about complimenting them. What problems arise from calling your children smart, though? What are we trying to avoid?
Right off the bat, the biggest problem appears to be that children become obsessed with being labeled smart and start cutting corners and cheating to ensure they’re keeping up with the label.
Children stop trying to get better because they’re trying to perform better. As long as you think they’re smart because they’re getting good grades, they’re happy even though they’re cheating.
On top of that, children that are labeled smart tend to blame everything on not being smart enough. When they’re not good at something for the get-go, for example, they’re more likely to give up rather than keep on trying because they’re conditioned to believe that they’re smart only when they’re winning.
On the other hand, children that are praised for working hard (rather than being smart) tend to conclude that they’re failing at something because they’re not working hard enough – rather than giving up because they’re simply not smart enough, they’re going to work harder and try again.
Oh, we could go on and on about the consequences of different words you use when referring to your children. But, with everything we’ve mentioned beforehand, we can agree that you’re better of praising your children for their effort, their persistence, and their work.
What’s the best way to praise your child?
With that out of the way, we do need to underline that you shouldn’t shy away from praising your children. You should, however, pay attention to a few tips and tricks that are going to ensure you’re employing the right language and resorting to appropriate techniques.
Starting with a bang, avoid labeling your children as “smart,” “creative,” or “talented.” Rather than praising your children’s abilities by saying “You’re creative,” praise them for the work that they’re doing by saying “Your answers are creative.”
Praise them for working hard, staying on top of their tasks, persisting at something difficult, coming up with creative concepts, and showing creative thinking skills. Swap “You’re smart” for “What a great way to stack those building blocks to prevent them from falling.”
Be creative with your compliments and don’t settle for something as boring as “You’re smart.” Before you go, don’t forget to avoid labeling other children (or even adults) smart in the presence of your child, either.
What are the best alternatives to “You’re smart?”
“Argh, I’m not creative with my compliments! What am I supposed to say?!”
Practice makes perfect (or practice makes better, whichever you prefer). Don’t worry, once you make a conscientious switch from one form of compliment to the other, you’re going to get better and better at thinking of different ways to praise your child. Our favorite alternatives are:
1. “That’s great! How did you come up with that?”
2. “You got an A? Great work, buddy!”
3. “Great work, honey. Are you proud of yourself?”
4. “Wow, keep up the good work!”
5. “Buddy, you never gave up! You have such a positive attitude!”