How Not to Talk to Your Children


“When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”   (Po Bronson, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” The New York Magazine, February 11, 2007)

It is not very often we read an article advising us to stop saying the phrases that have come so naturally to us as parents and educators.  The New York Magazine article by Po Bronson, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” is abundant with research about just that, how not to talk to our children.  In fact, over 200 studies and 15,000 articles have been analyzed over the past 37 years and the research is consistent and clear.  It overwhelmingly states praising your child for being “smart” does more harm than good.  One researcher in the article said, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”  So instead of trying harder and putting in more effort to tackle a new challenge, children who are told they are smart will take the easy way out to avoid embarrassment from not doing well or potentially failing.  The children whose efforts are praised are more inclined to try more difficult tasks.

One thing this boils down to is, as a parent and educator, you MUST know your child or student.  It is a key to their success in the classroom and life.  Does your child get embarrassed if you compliment their reading in front of others?  If so, he may very well shut down and not want to participate because he doesn’t want to be recognized in front of others.  So wait till you are alone and praise his efforts for standing in front of the class and provide encouragement.  Is he the type of child who relishes in the opportunity to hear her essay read aloud in class?  If so, continue to praise her enthusiasm, but also encourage her to keep pushing herself to the next level.   Be genuine and specific to your child about their accomplishment and the effort they put forth.  This makes a lasting impression!  I believe eye contact with the child and a pat on the back also goes a long way!


Stephanie T. Jefferson, M.Ed.

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