Years ago, my daughter Annie worried that she wasn’t “smart like her sister.”
I quickly told her: “Of course you are!”
I shouldn’t have said that.
“I think that ‘smart’ is as detrimental a label as ‘dumb’ is for kids. It causes them to feel trapped when they don’t know how to do something,” says Abby Mansfield, a third-grade teacher at St. John School, a private Catholic school in North Seattle.
Often if kids are labeled “smart,” it’s because the work comes easy to them, says Mansfield. Maybe they are “fast thinkers,” or they have no learning issues, or they haven’t yet dealt with schoolwork that feels hard. She’s seen her "smart" students freeze when faced with difficulties, fearing they’re no longer smart.
To help avoid this failure freeze, Mansfield teaches her third-graders about psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mindset. For those unfamiliar with Dweck’s popular research, including her well-known TED Talk, Mansfield has a ready-made explanation that she uses with her students.
“Fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is something you are either born with or aren’t, that you can’t change how smart you are,” she says. “Growth mindset is based on neurological research in neuroplasticity, which states that the brain is continually growing and changing.”
That research means that when you struggle — perhaps as a third-grader facing challenging math homework — your brain is actually growing more than when schoolwork is easy, says Mansfield. As mistakes happen, more than one part of the brain is activated and more neuropathways form. The brain is “growing.”
Instead of labeling your kid as smart, parents should praise their kids’ hard work and effort.
Once Mansfield’s students understand this growth mindset, they’re better equipped to see struggles and mistakes as opportunities to grow and learn. But they need encouragement.
“Struggle should be celebrated, not feared,” says Mansfield. “We talk a lot in my classroom about why I make them struggle.” Her students know that they’re learning more when they get the answer wrong.
Alternatives to calling them “smart”
Instead of labeling your kid as smart, talented or gifted, parents should praise their kids’ hard work and effort, Mansfield says.
“We want to raise resilient children who see themselves as problem-solvers and who are willing to rise to a challenge. Process praise instills this thinking,” says Mansfield. “When a child comes home with an A grade, rather than saying ‘Wow, you are so smart,’ we can say ‘Wow, good work; what did you do to accomplish that A?’”
Of course, it takes practice for parents to replace those automatic retorts. My personal goal: Replace a compliment based around a trait (“You’re so smart!”) with process praise (“Good job! What did you do to accomplish that A?”) 10 percent of the time.
To help, I’ve placed a chart on my office bulletin board to help learn growth mindset phrases. For example, instead of saying “This is too hard,” I might say “This may take some time.”
And believe me, it will be, but it’ll also be worth it.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2018, and updated in September 2020.