The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Carol Dweck:

Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life.
Growing Pains

  • Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.
  • Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.
  • Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.

3 thoughts on “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids”

  1. This is an excellent article. However, it is important to note that in order to be able to appropriately praise/reinforce your growing child for their effort and persistence, they need to actually experience situations where genuine effort and persistence are required of them. If all they ever encounter at school is stuff that’s too easy for them, that doesn’t require effort and persistence, that they learned years ago, that they learn on the first repetition, etc., well, what’s a parent to do? How many times did my husband and I say to an elementary school teacher “we want you to challenge him because we want him to learn how to fail, to fail and then to pick himself up and try again; we want him to learn that failure will not destroy him, that learning to persist will make him strong on the inside.” That is what real self-esteem is: the deep, deep inner knowledge that yes, you CAN rise to the challenge, that your efforts and determination matter, that you can make a difference in your own life and in the world. Our schools must shoulder their portion of the responsibility to provide our children with ongoing opportunities to learn these life lessons. A steady diet of what psychologists call “positive noncontingent reinforcement” — that is, sappy praise no matter what you do and/or straight A’s with minimal effort — too often leads only to malaise, underachievement and depression.

  2. “Is it really the job of the public schools … ?”
    Yes, I think it is. Absolutely, I think it is. I believe that in order to become a genuine “lifelong learner,” one has to experience a certain amount of frustration and failure along the way, develop a capacity for persistence and some immunity to the disease of perfectionism. As I said above, I believe that’s what real self-esteem is.
    And yes, I do think that’s something best learned in childhood, and in school. So yes, I do believe the school should be a partner in that effort and see itself as having some responsibility for teaching that life lesson to all students.
    “Maybe you could sign your kid up for a sport they’re not good at.”
    Well, my sons aren’t good at ANY sports! :-)!!! Indeed, with our oldest (17), soccer gave us lots of opportunities to talk about these important issues, and to emphasize the importance of effort and sheer pleasure in the activity. He took those lessons in and played until the end of 7th grade, well after the (unquestioned) “tracking” of soccer players by ability had occurred. (I mean, after all, what fool parent would keep their high-ability soccer player child on a team or in a league that included low level players like my son?)
    Music (he plays the viola and is far from the first chair in the section — but he loves making music) has been another place where we’ve had the opportunity to disentangle effort, natural ability and enjoyment. We’re thrilled that as he looks at colleges, one thing he’s paying attention to is whether or not there are opportunities for non-music majors to play in ensembles and orchestras.
    Our youngest (14) is a performer, so he’s experienced lots of auditions over the years and — needless to say — has not always gotten the part. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t struggling some with the work load of 9th grade (his work load, that is — which includes more advanced classes than the typical 9th grade course load), largely because middle school demanded almost nothing of him for three years.
    And don’t forget, the focus of the article is on school, intelligence, parenting and academic self-image/self-esteem. I’m simply agreeing with Carol Dweck that it’s important for parents to praise and reward effort at least as much as they praise ability, possibly even more. My point is that to praise your child’s effort when s/he hasn’t had to expend much effort creates just as unhealthy/unhelpful a situation as when we only praise ability. Hence my plea that every child be appropriately challenged, so that they actually have to put forth something that feels to them like real effort. Then when we praise them for trying so hard and working so well, it will actually mean something to them.
    Make sense?

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