Can You Never Tell a Child He’s Smart?

Ever since I read about “The Inverse Power of Praise” I have been acutely aware of how I praise Gavin.  At the same time, I am also aware of how others praise Gavin.  Although I know the importance of focusing my praise on his efforts, many others are still praising his innate intelligence.  So often I hear a friend or relative exclaiming, “Clever boy!”  And when I hear it, I just want to cringe.  Most times, I try to intercept the praise and redirect it.  Being Gavin’s mother, I assume (and hope) that my words would mean more than another person’s.

Although this works when I’m around to intercede, I also know that Gavin is increasingly spending more time away from me where he is bound to hear the wrong kind of praise and I will not be able to do anything about it.  For instance, when he is at school, I have no way of knowing how his teachers praise him.  Do they praise his efforts?  Or do they praise his intelligence?  And if they focus on the latter, what are the effects?

While I have told Gavin’s grandparents the importance of focusing praise on his efforts, there will still be slips – heck, even though I know I’m not supposed to, I make the same slip from time to time.  I’ve also tried to educate as much as possible so that others don’t make the same mistake of offering misdirected praise.  Nevertheless, it would be naive to think I can shield Gavin completely from praise like “clever boy” and “smart boy”.  So what are the effects upon a child who hears both types of praise?

According to Po Bronson, as long as you as you keep it to a minimum of 25% praise on intelligence and 75% praise on effort, your child will still be as persistent as those who hear 100% praise on their efforts.  Just make sure the ratio doesn’t drop to 50-50 because that’s as good as simply praising your child for his intelligence.  So the occasional slip of telling your child he’s smart isn’t going to hurt as long as you make sure you make sure your child hears lots of praise focused on his efforts.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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