Is it a Good Idea to Tell Your Kids They’re SMART? The Surprising, Important Answer Parents Need to Know Here

GUEST POST by Toni Schutta M.A. L.P.

Have you ever told your kids or teens that they’re “smart?”  Would you be surprised to learn that you should strike the word “smart” from your vocabulary?


To explain why, I’m turning to my friend Toni Schutta M.A. L.P. as my guest blogger for today.  Toni is an author, parenting coach, mom, licensed psychologist, radio personality, and national speaker who you may have seen in national parenting magazines and on TV news.

My big news today is that she’s offering a FREE COPY of her book 20 Great Ways to Raise Great Kids to my blog readers this month.   (Keep reading and I’ll give you the link you can use to get your free copy of Toni’s book.)

Today I asked Toni to give my readers one critically important strategy that parents need to know when raising potentially college bound kids and teens.  Below you’ll find Toni’s Article Is it a Good Idea to Tell Your Kids They’re SMART?


Is it a Good Idea to Tell Your Kids They’re SMART?  

GUEST POST By Toni Schutta 


Hi; I’m Toni Schutta. Today, let me explain why this is true — and give you 7 practical tips for giving praise that truly has the impact you want it to.

Carol Dweck is a Stanford researcher whose writing is featured in my book 20 Great Ways to Raise Great Kids.  She’s spent the last 40 years studying factors that help kids succeed and fail. Dweck strongly advises against using the word “smart,” “high potential,” or “gifted and talented” with children.


Dweck says that praising kids for their natural-born intelligence backfires. What parents need to do instead is to praise kids for their EFFORT and HARD WORK.

Why praising kids for EFFORT and HARD WORK is the best strategy

“The self-esteem movement taught us that we could hand our children self-esteem by praising their intelligence and talent. And that we simply had to do praise them at every opportunity, which would make our kids feel great about themselves and help them achieve. It turns out this was dead wrong,” Dweck says.

Dweck conducted a study where students were given an intelligence test using puzzles. The students were divided into two groups. One group of students was told at the end of the test, “You must be smart at this.” In other words, they were praised for their intelligence and natural ability.

The second group of students was told, “You must have worked very hard” when they completed their test. In other words, they were praised for their effort.

Interesting things happened next.  When kids were asked whether they wanted to take an easy or a hard test next, many in the “smart” group chose the easier test. The “smart” kids were afraid that the hard test might show that they weren’t really that smart.

Most of the kids in the group praised for their hard work, however, said:  “I’ll take the harder test.”

Researchers then had the entire group of take a test two whole years above their ability level.  Many did poorly. The interesting outcome though, came afterward when both groups were given the original puzzle-based intelligence test again.  The surprising result?  30% of the “smart” kids did worse on it. Why? Because their confidence had been shaken. Some even lied about how poorly they had done.

Dweck said this:  “Our research found that praising kids for intelligence really harmed the kids. After the ‘smart’ kids took the test, they didn’t care about learning anymore. They just cared about being smart. They wouldn’t take on a challenging task. They were afraid of making mistakes, even if they’d learn something. Then when we gave them some hard things to do, they crumbled. They thought they weren’t smart anymore, because the success meant they were smart, the struggle meant they weren’t smart. They didn’t like struggling. They lost their confidence, their performance plummeted, and then they lied about it. Because when children are in a fixed mindset where intelligence is all important, mistakes are humiliating and they covered them up.”

The group praised for their effort and hard work, however, actually did 30% better on the next test. These kids showed persistence, resiliency, and success using strategies they figured out while “struggling.”

Don’t tell kids they’re smart; tell them THIS instead.

Stop praising your kids by saying things like, “You’re so smart.” “You’re such a good athlete.” “You’re a natural at this!”  Instead, recognize the effort it took your child to achieve.  Say things like:

  • “Even though that math problem was hard, you kept trying until you got it done. I noticed how you drew a picture to solve the word problem. That seemed to really help you.”
  • “You passed the puck over a dozen times and blocked at least five shots on goal. Great hustle out there!”
  • “Congratulations on doing well on your spelling test. I saw you making flashcards and practicing 5 words a night this past week. It seems that strategy and the hard work you put in really paid off for you.”

7  Strategies for Praising Effectively:

1.  Be on the lookout for moments when your child is putting forth effort or using effective well-thought-through strategies to get something done.

2.  Without saying anything at first, take a moment to truly value the hard work and thoughtful strategy your child is using.  Recognize it as behavior that can lead to a lifetime of success.

3.  Offer praise only when you can do so sincerely.  Researchers have found that children over the age of seven can tell when praise is not sincere. Older children and teens can also perceive when praise is being used to control or manipulate their behavior. Praise back-fires in both of these situations.

4.  Don’t praise by comparing your child to others.  Simply focus on the effort and strategies that the child himself or herself used to finish the task.

5.  As soon as possible after you notice the positive act, look your child in the eye.  Eye contact is important to emotional, personal connection and is the first step in getting your message across.

6.  Specifically describe and appreciate the steps the child took to achieve the positive outcome. Acknowledge the effort and hard work it took.

7.  Avoid generalized non-specific praise like “You’re such a good kid.”  The child who hears this is likely to start coming up with reasons he or she may not be a “good kid.”  This makes the praise ring false to the child — and he or she discounts it.


Free gift for my blog readers this month!

If you’d like to receive a free copy of Toni’s book, 20 Great Ways to Raise Great Kids which contains interviews with 20 of America’s top parenting experts and 10 wise parents, you can get a free copy here:  Please share this blog post with friends so that they can get their free book too.

For free, clear, step-by-step help on how to get your kids through college completely debt free, click on your child’s age in the “WHAT TO DO WHEN” section on this website right now.   Parents of kids in 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades have specific tasks to be thinking about this summer.



What about you?  Have you seen a difference when you praise kids for their HARD WORK rather than for their innate intelligence or “giftedness”?  Leave your comment in the space below, or start a discussion with me on Twitter or over on Facebook at Jeannie Burlowski Author.