Praise the Effort, Not the Intellect

“You’re so smart!”

“You got an A on the test without even studying! You must be really great at math!”

For over a generation parents have believed that one of the keys to producing successful, high-achieving children was praise. Repeatedly telling kids how smart they are or how great their abilities are, it was thought, would lead children to believe that they had very valuable contributions to make and that they could therefore tackle anything. Self-esteem was seen as the road to achievement and success.

New research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck pokes serious holes in the self-esteem-based child-rearing theories of the past. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck asserts that “Contrary to popular belief, praising children’s intelligence did not give them confidence and did not make them learn better.” Rather, children who constantly hear how smart they are take away potentially negative lessons. Too much praise can lead to greater risk-aversion, high sensitivity to failure, and an underdeveloped ethic of persistence.

Excessive focus on being “smart,” an innate quality, has significant consequences. By stressing the innate, a message is sent that diminishes the importance of effort. It can lead to the belief that expending effort is something only “dumb” kids do, because smart kids don’t really need to in order to succeed. Focusing on “smarts” is evidence of what Dweck calls a “fixed mind-set.” Individuals with a fixed mind-set believe that intelligence is fixed, that there’s nothing one can do to change it or improve. “In the fixed mind-set, effort is not a cause for pride. It is something that casts doubt on your talent.” People with fixed mind-sets fear failure because they see it as an unavoidable comment on their true abilities. Those who possess a growth mind-set don’t mind failure as much, because they know their performance can improve with the knowledge they gain throughout life’s journey of successes and failures.

When we focus on praising children for their intelligence, they get a message that the innate matters more than the cultivated. Instead, we ought to encourage a growth mind-set and focus on praising effort. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure.”

Be Specific

Praise must be specific in order to be truly effective. That way, kids learn exactly what they did to earn the praise. The exchange becomes repeatable. “I like how you kept on trying even after it didn’t work the first time.” “I saw how much effort you put into studying for the test. That was awesome, and I know it will pay off down the line.” “You showed great concentration and focus during the game. It was great to see!”

Be Sincere
Praise must also be sincere. Kids are very adept at recognizing praise that is not genuine. They only accept praise at face value until they’re about six or seven years old. After that, they begin to discount frequent praise and interpret it as signaling a lack of ability. Teens rather readily believe that praise from a teacher is a sign that the teacher believes you need extra encouragement and that criticism actually conveys a positive belief in their aptitude. This is based on a not-too-mistaken belief that praise sends a message of having reached the natural limit of one’s abilities while criticism implies that there is room for performance to improve.

Use Care
Praise must be given with care and not indiscriminately. If it comes too frequently, too easily, or for the wrong reasons, it could defeat its true purpose. Too much praise can lead to quitting when the immediate rewards disappear.

Cultivate a Growth Mind Set
Strive to cultivate a growth mind-set. Teach kids that the brain is like a muscle — the more you challenge it and exercise it, the stronger it becomes. A growth mind-set leads to openness, persistence, sustained motivation, and comfort with that most important trait of maturity, the ability to delay gratification.

Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a Junior K4 – 12th grade independent school in the North Tampa community of Land O’Lakes. Learn more about Academy at the Lakes by visiting

Leave a Reply