Ponderings on mindsets and intelligence

One of the things that the mindset literature is pretty clear on is that you’re not supposed to praise kids for innate characteristics, but for effort.  They have studies where they measure effort after a kid has been told, “You’re so smart” vs. “I can really see the effort you put in” or something like that.  Outcomes in the next experiment decline for the former but not for the latter.  Later studies suggest cheating goes up when innate intelligence is praised.

And so I’ve been keeping these ideas in mind when raising my kids.  With our first child we even went so far as to (frequently) request daycare and school teachers not to praise hir intelligence, but instead hir work ethic and interest.

And I thought that was the right thing to do until recently.  For the past couple of years, I’ve had an extremely successful student, a young woman, for two classes who has low confidence.  She’s easily one of the best students our program has had and lots of professors agree.  But she has low confidence.  She wanted to go to graduate school.  It took a lot of pushing to get her to apply to top programs that she should have gotten into based on her testscores, perfect GPA, and research experience.

She didn’t get in to any of them.  I’m guessing her essay wasn’t any good (she was too embarrassed to show it to professors before sending!) and most likely they wanted more work experience.  Plus she was on the low end for pure math courses– a few more probably would have helped.  I also wonder if she made the right choices of letter writers.  Maybe her research supervisor wasn’t as effusive about her as the professors in my department are.

Contrast that with one of her friends who is similarly situated except has an extremely high self-confidence (even if she has far less intellectual curiosity).  This friend didn’t apply to graduate school but did get into one of the most prestigious RA positions you can get as a feeder to top graduate schools.

I met the parents of both women at graduation and got an insight into the difference in confidence.  The parents of the second girl thanked me for being a great professor and for giving their daughter opportunities and said they were really excited about her job for next year.  They had normal proud parent reactions as we went back and forth praising their daughter (and me) and discussing her future.

The second set of parents (divorced, so I got this conversation twice) was also effusive in their praise for me, but not so much in their praise for their own daughter.  “She works hard,” “she’s always worked hard,” was a constant refrain from parents, step-parents, and siblings.  But there was something about the way they said it, as if they were excusing the praise rather than accepting it.  This was fixed in my mind when her mom’s response to my praise of her daughter was, “that’s sweet of you to say.”  “No, no it wasn’t,” I said. “I’m from the midwest.  We don’t just say things unless they’re true.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about the world telling my kids that they’re smart.  They are smart.  That’s just a fact.  (And, to be honest, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about being told I’m smart… I mean, yes, I’m smart, but so what.  Praise my accomplishments and things I’ve done, not my innate nature.)

Growing up my family took being smart for a given.  Of course I was smart.  I’m smart but so what.  Being smart isn’t enough (wasn’t enough), it’s what I do with it.  I wasn’t allowed to let my brain atrophy.  I had to keep exercising it.  My mom always told me I needed to keep pushing myself so that I could grow more dendrites.  Working hard would make me smarter.

Early on I really did believe that I just worked harder and had more opportunities than the other kids.  And that’s definitely true– my parents sacrificed a lot to give us opportunities and focused on our academic growth.  My mom picked up a lot of good child rearing techniques while working for Head Start back in the 70s.

But in the past few years since having children, I’ve come to suspect that there’s actually a bit of nature in the equation as well.   Maybe it’s not just in utero health and stimulation as an infant and so on (though these things are obviously important).  I sometimes wonder if gifted kids were just born with a bit more curiosity than non-gifted– and it’s the energy and curiosity that causes us to explore and grow dendrites… or maybe the lower sleep need is what allows more connections to be built, who knows.  Other kids can get as smart, but it’s more of an uphill climb.

Nature cannot be everything.  At university, I see my students get smarter, quicker, and more curious over the 2-4 years that I know them.  That blossoming is amazing.  Taking kids with cruddy high school experiences and fewer family advantages and teaching them to think and aspire and question is one of the most rewarding things that I do.  People really can get smarter.

I don’t want my DCs to feel limited.  I don’t want them to think they’re not capable of great things.  Maybe it is ok to say, Yes of course you’re smart, but what matters is what you do with it.  What matters is what you love, how hard you work, what interests you, what you care about, how much you focus, how many times you try.  And luck, of course, but we can control that about as much as we can our intelligence, which is to say, we can help create our own luck with measured risks just as we can increase our intelligence by focused study*.

I don’t think those short-term lab experiments by Carol Dweck et al. exclude this idea, the idea that you can combine praise for intelligence with emphasis on hard work.  So maybe I’ll go back to doing what seems right to me and not worry so much about how people praise my kids, so long as my kids know that intelligence isn’t everything.  Maybe praising solely effort isn’t the only way to create perseverance.  Maybe a little self-knowledge won’t hurt and will allow them to reach farther so they don’t keep themselves from taking opportunities.

Where do you fall on the praise spectrum?  We know all our readers are intelligent– do you think how you were praised as kids affects your perseverance and self-confidence as adults?  (And in what way?)

*standard disclaimer about extreme situations and not blaming people in poverty or with mental disabilities

55 Responses to “Ponderings on mindsets and intelligence”

  1. Leah Says:

    I was always a “smart” kid growing up. I was in advanced tracking, higher classes, etc. And, of course, adults always told me I was smart. I have definitely had situations where I didn’t work hard enough and thus fell short. My parents remind me of such as well. I have been lucky to have natural talent that carried me in several areas. Hard to say if praising effort would have helped me be more successful and push harder. I’m happy with life, and I’ve discovered that I can be somewhat competitive but am not happy being strongly competitive. I didn’t enjoy grad school and debating at an R1 — too much pressure.

    Being smart as an adult is hard, because people don’t like not being smart, so I think adults resent it if other adults are too smart. The qualities of smartness that we admire in kids are not as often admired in the adult world. And if you want to be surrounded by people where smartness is a virtue, then it is a constant struggle to be smarter in that group.

    I don’t have a good answer on what to do re: kids. I praise my kid for her hard work and effort, but I don’t worry overly much about what others say to her. It’s similar to the pretty thing — lots of people like to praise her looks. I will, of course, acknowledge that (my kid is pretty good looking already), but I also want to praise her strength and exploratory nature.

    Side question: you mention lower sleep need in gifted kids. At what age does this start? Is it also true for babies? Maybe I’m just grasping at straws, but my kid does not like to sleep. The world is just too exciting for her!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It starts at infancy (and probably goes away at adolescence!)

      We feel exactly the opposite about the difference between being smart as children and as adults. The difference is that as adults we get to pick who we hang out with.

      • Leah Says:

        In my small town, I have a limited ability to pick. All of my close friends are people with whom I feel comfortable being intelligent. But I will sometimes hold my tongue with acquaintances and in situations with new people. I do appreciate my work place and that intellectual ability is highly prized.

      • Leah Says:

        Oh, meant to add: I did have a previous workplace where I got mocked for listening to NPR. Lunchtime conversation revolved around hunting (not bad, per se), drinking, bitching about students, etc. There were a few intellectual refuges there and some whip-smart coworkers, but there were also a lot who were likely intelligent but didn’t prize intellect.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        #2 mocks me for listening to NPR. I think she just doesn’t know any better because she never listens to it.

    • STEMPhD Says:

      I had a similar situation to you, except my parents didn’t push me or really tell me how smart I was until I was in HS. They also didn’t really tell me how hard I worked. I’m not sure how I was motivated?

      By HS I thought I was average intelligence, but just worked hard and could pay attention really well most of the time (I’ve never fallen asleep in a class/seminar). It took me going to grad school to realize that I am maybe above average, but even now I feel supremely douchey saying that. I had major impostor syndrome in college and grad school, until I realized that I am not JUST a hard worker.

      However, I totally agree that being smart as an adult is hard. I thought I wouldn’t encounter that in my current workplace, as it is a SCHOOL, but I do all of the time. (I have a PhD, which is rare for HS teachers, and also look younger than I am.) I don’t mind, but I frequently hear things like, “We’ll let you put the new toner in the copier. You can probably figure it out, since you are a Dr”. Such comments are said good naturedly, but it still makes me squirm for a few reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on.

      Also, I am curious about the sleep thing in gifted kids. Any links you can point me to? How strong is the correlation?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Unfortunately, the last big reading of the literature on gifted kids I did was several years ago.

        Correlation (inverse between IQ and hours slept in kids) is high and has been found in multiple surveys. That doesn’t mean it’s causal or not caused by reporting bias of some kind. I don’t have links off hand, but they’re not difficult to find if you start reading the literature– a google of “do gifted children need less sleep” brings up a ton of links, but you may have to get into books on giftedness to see the original surveys.

  2. Monica Says:

    I love this post! I’ve been relaxing my praise-only-effort stance and allowing myself to tell the kids “you’re smart” (as well as praising effort). The story of the woman without self-confidence makes me sad :(

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It makes me sad too. :(

      Professionally she’s going to do fine whatever she does because she is smart and she is a hard worker, but it bothers me when kids don’t think they’re good enough to reach for things. We need more “If you don’t get rejected you weren’t applying high enough.” I don’t think it’s that these kids aren’t ambitious, and there are definitely benefits from getting better quality education or better quality jobs etc. (so it’s not a type A vs type B personality thing), they just really believe their normal curves are shifted to the left from what they actually are. A lot like Carolyn Hoxby and Sarah Turner’s work on getting smart kids to apply to better colleges, but they just use an information treatment and make using the fee waiver easier. But it’s possible some of that is including a signal about the kids’ own opportunity set.

  3. SP Says:

    I read a comment on a recent post of yours (or actually I think it was an old post that was recently linked? Not sure how I ended up there.) about how the parents praised the kid for “good failures”, where they really went after a stretch goal and didn’t make it. That is fabulous, and I hope to instill that in my hypothetical kids. I (still) hate failing, even if I know intellectually it is a good thing. I’d rather win, thanks.

    Also: “I’m from the midwest. We don’t just say things unless they’re true.” hahaha, I love the midwest. So true.

  4. anandar Says:

    I think there is a world of difference between positive comments that are mostly encouraging and supportive (which make you feel like you can do anything) versus positive comments that are mostly evaluative and/or conditional (which make you feel judged, and like your performance in a given situation is a reflection of your innate worth), and IMO some of the whole praise of effort v. praise of abilities is just a way to try get at the difference between encouragement v. judgment. I find my children interesting and fabulous, and I am effusive and explicit in expressing that to my kids (to the extent my own midwestern sensibilities allow). But I pretty much never say, “you’re so smart”– that is just not a comment worthy of or helpful to my interesting and fabulous children. :) Like wise “great job,” etc– I hear some parents for whom that is more of a verbal tic, and I find it kind of a turnoff. I think I would have this opinion even without reading Dweck (partly because my relatives are early childhood educators and in their fields, not over-doing praise is well-established practice).

    In your less successful student’s case, I hear a lack of baseline enthusiasm for their daughter that is kind of sad, but I don’t necessarily think them telling their daughter that she is smart v. put forth good effort would change anything.

    I do have my own regrets about some of my gold-star-seeking behavior growing up, and am deliberate about not encouraging the same in my kids (but they are young yet and so grades etc are not relevant yet).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We actually disagree with your philosophy entirely– somewhere we have a post on why. I will try to dig it up. Essentially we think this “no evaluation allowed” philosophy is a corruption of the mindset research with zero research base behind going to the extremes and can actually be harmful. Evaluation is a part of life and being able to accept both the good and the bad is an important life skill.

      It is fine to say “great job” to your kids! Or to suggest trying different things! It’s the same idea as early potty training– the potty training isn’t the problem, it’s how you go about doing it. Evaluating isn’t the problem.

      • anandar Says:

        I certainly never said “no evaluation allowed,” ever, just that blanket “you’re so smart” type praise doesn’t appeal to me as much as more specific and engaged positive comments. I do what comes naturally when it comes to talking to my kids (anything else sounds kind of stressful!), but if I had to put my parental impulses in theoretical terms, I’d say that the world is going to give my kids plenty of extrinsic motivation (given their overall privilege level); I see my role as a parent as to develop and support intrinsic motivation. The research on effects of different types of praise in young children is well-established (and pre-dates Dweck’s most popular work), so I am not sure I understand what you mean by describing it as a “corruption of the mindset research.”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I thought you were referring to the Alfie Kohn and Althea Solezar (spelling?) stuff on not evaluating children. This was an enormous movement among parents, not being allowed to say “good job” to your kids, the last time we were living in a blue city. You could say, “that drawing has a lot of blue in it” but not “great drawing”, not even “I like how you used blue here to illustrate…” because that’s providing judgment.

        I’m not finding our rant on that on this blog (though I am finding the rant on “telling your kids how they feel”, and we’ve definitely peppered comments sections of parenting blogs with negative comments about alfie kohn).

        Apologies because it sounds like that is not what you meant at all. There *is* a movement to not allow any evaluation (and really there has been since Rousseau, probably before), and one of their things is never saying “good job” to your kids even if they do a good job. It’s exactly about treating all praise as the same and as bad, rather than allowing for different types to be different, which it sounds like both you and we think is important.

        This particular post is suggesting that maybe it’s ok to praise inherent characteristics, even though the lab research suggests that in specific situation doing so leads to decreased intrinsic motivation.

      • anandar Says:

        I looked for a lay summary of research on praise–which goes back to the seventies–and found this one on a teacher’s union website: http://www.aft.org/ae/winter2005-2006/willingham It is not at all black or white, and of course doesn’t even get to so many basic Qs like the difference between research environment v. real life; role of parent v. teacher; early childhood v. school aged differences, etc. “Growth mindset” is only one of a number of issues related to praise.

        I will confess that I don’t know who Solezar is, but I have read some of Alfie Kohn’s articles and follow him on twitter (FWIW), and my impression is that he is advocating a very useful corrective to the mainstream approach to schooling/parenting, which is to rely heavily on extrinsic motivation at the expense of development of intrinsic motivation. I think of him as more a popularizer and also someone with a very explicit ideology (i.e., anti-capitalist), so I wouldn’t look to him for objectivity or nuance. Like most fancy-pants progressive private schools (at least where I live), I think he is saying we should get away from reliance on grades and test scores, but I don’t interpret that as meaning not expecting high-quality school work or not giving students feedback, but doing so in a sophisticated way that is designed to empower students as intellectual and moral people. Which I can get behind. But, easier said than done in a less-well-resourced environment.

        But a parent is not the same as a teacher, and on the one hand, I don’t think that a loving and engaged parent needs to get hung up on what kind of positive comments are “ok” or “not ok,” but that doesn’t stop me from finding it interesting and speculating on how the way I was raised, and the way I am raising my kids, is informed by professional child development norms. I think you could do a very interesting post on the extent which one’s parenting ought to be “research based,” anyway.

        Another interesting tangent, and then I will stop with this over-long comment, is that having spent a fair amount of time as an adult in super-smart-person-saturated environments, I have much more of a gut level understanding of “intelligence” as multi-faceted and complex, and not susceptible to being measured in a linear fashion. It would make total sense to me that different flavors of positive reinforcement would have different effects on children, but there is no “right” or “wrong”– how a family values competition, judgment, acceptance, achievement, depth of intellect, breadth of intellect, etc etc– it all varies. I guess I do think it is worthwhile to observe whether one’s treatment of one’s kids corresponds to one’s values.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Interesting link!

        Alfie Kohn has a long long history of taking good ideas to bad extremes ( http://blogs.britannica.com/2009/02/alfie-kohn-is-bad-for-you-and-dangerous-for-your-children/ is a fun essay). When I mentioned him to my mom back when we were meeting extreme parents, she was shocked that he was still around and asked if he was still destroying the lives of low SES kids like he was back in the day. Apparently he’s since moved on to high SES, which is hopefully less dangerous for society.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        oh hey, your link and my link are the same dude

  5. Debbie M Says:

    I definitely got praised for being smart. I went to Head Start (which I later remembered as a special program for smart people, but which I then learned from history books is for economically disadvantaged people). The way my mom tells it, they said I was too advanced for that program and for kindergarten so I skipped kindergarten. When we were about to move, my first grade teacher begged my mom not to move until after the standardized tests so I would help make the teacher look good. So, yeah.

    If I would have been told it didn’t matter that I was smart–what mattered was how hard I worked, I sure feel like that would have deflated my self-esteem. It would have felt like they were saying that what I was good at (being smart) doesn’t matter–only what I’m not so good at (working hard) is what matters.

    On the other hand, when I came home crying because of not doing as well as I had wanted, my mom always asked whether I had tried as hard as I could. I probably hadn’t, but I said yes and didn’t feel like that much of a liar. And then I would get a big hug and get told that doing my best was good enough. So I did also get the message that trying hard is also important.

    My perseverence has always been terrible. I used to get frustrated if I didn’t get things right the first time. (Not just as a two year old!) Then I got to where I would try something three times before I got frustrated. Finally in grad school and beyond I met some people who made it very clear that trying things only three times was not very much. These people also enjoyed the process of trying over and over. For example, one guy asked if he could try to open my trunk without using the key.

    I still always assume, when I’m wondering whether I have tried something long enough, that the answer is no–I assume I always err on the side of not trying enough. Semi-recent evidence: I once was job hunting as hard as I could for over six months. Every resume and cover letter was personalized for the position and I was highly qualified for every position–I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong and gave up. Then I read that people generally need 10 – 15 interviews before they get a job offer. I looked over my records and found that I had had 9 interviews. So I took up the search again and, indeed, interviews #12 and 13 led to job offers. So I still don’t really get it, but I do know that I give up too soon. And that if you’re out of ideas, just take a break or keep playing with the problem and I’ll probably get some more ideas.

    My self-confidence does seem pretty good, though. I’m not one of those people who applies for jobs that I’m not qualified for, knowing that I can quickly learn everything I need to know while on the job (like many of my friends), but I did apply only to top colleges and grad schools. I do try new things and am not afraid of looking like an idiot like some people are–basically I feel that I never look cool anyway and also that this is alright. This may be partly because it became clear to me early on that I was not like everyone else in many ways, and my mom made it clear that this was okay. For example, I never dated until college. Mom explained to her friends that it was because boys my age are so immature! I liked reading more than playing–so did my mom!

    Heh, now I sound like a loser! So let me just add that I am retired at age 52 and I spend all day doing whatever I want (plus a few chores). I am the biggest winner ever!

  6. chacha1 Says:

    Specifically with reference to the student who didn’t get into the grad program(s) … I suspect there may be no amount of innate ability that can compensate for emotional weakness. By which I mean, if a person is naturally low-confidence, low-assertiveness, passive, reactive, unadventurous, fearful, etc … and if the person then grows up in an environment that rewards those qualities … it may not matter if that person’s IQ is 180. They don’t have the tools to apply it. I think in order to be a successful academician or businessperson, ESPECIALLY if you are female, you have to have a bit of killer instinct and you have to be willing to unleash it.

    So if I had had children, and if they had manifested intelligence, I would devote probably 20% of their educational time to building toughness, not just to acquiring new facts or skills. I would do this by requiring them to do things – physical and mental – they were not already good at. I don’t think there’s any more effective way to really challenge people. You can tell people they’re smart, or that they’ve learned something well, but it’s not going to have the same emotional resonance as when they finally master something that was really hard for them. Recovery from failure is a grossly underestimated life skill.

    I would be a lot more successful if I had not been steered into fields that rewarded me for things I did not need to be taught to do, and instead shoved forcibly into a few more math/engineering/science classes.

  7. Kellen Says:

    So complicated… I was told I was smart a lot, but it was combined with messages that I was lazy. Mostly because my sister, 2 yrs older, is a perfectionist, and would fight and struggle through her homework to get 100%, then I would take the same class 2 years later, put in some effort but not a painful level, and get an A or A- anyway. But the story I was told over and over again was that I was lazy–and it felt like it was lucky I was smart and could “get away with it.” But this narrative didn’t prepare me well for harder classes in college, since if I didn’t do so well, I just thought “guess my smartness wasn’t enough to overcome laziness here…” and I thought this laziness was innate, not something I could overcome. Plus, it creates this kind of uncertainty about how to make sure you do well–if you are just relying on being smart enough, rather than knowing you put in the work to do well.
    In addition to these messages, I was told over and over that I was too negative, which also became a core belief about who I am.
    But I have met other smart people who were much more confident of what they could accomplish, and worked hard, and I am guessing they were given the message that they were smart and worked hard, which kind of means you know you can improve on an already head start (smartness) by your other quality (hard work.)
    I have had bosses praise me for being smart and working hard, and I feel like I am still “getting away with it,” and not really working hard. It’s like the inverse of your student who knew she worked hard, but probably thought she wasn’t innately “smart” enough to get into the very top programs, even with the hard work. She probably thought her hard work was masking her average intellect.
    At some point I think I figured out that it doesn’t really matter (your “so what” approach I guess) if you are average or high intelligence if you’re not working hard to use it.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My sister had that smart but doing the minimal effort to get an A thing going on in middle school, so my parents sent her to a private high school where the minimum to get an A was a lot more. It seemed to work out. Being able to do the minimum to get a job done is a great skill (and one I admire), but it’s also important to know what the prize is– often it isn’t the grade at all.

      I think that’s exactly what my student thinks, that her hard work is masking average or even below average intellect. Which doesn’t really matter if the outcome is the same…

      There’s this a capella song by sweet honey in the rock… about appearance… that I think is related to these ideas: https://youtu.be/D6v4EqoqXSs — is it better to not care about appearance or is it better to be told one is beautiful from time to time?

      I’m still thinking these things through.

      • Kellen Says:

        If you live in a society where beauty is important, it seems like it might not be worth it to withhold telling your child they are beautiful. Plus, regardless of society’s image of beauty, is it a natural trait in humans to think that the people they love are beautiful? If so, then it’s a natural part of a relationship with people who love *you* to have them say you’re beautiful. It’s too bad that there are other meanings to the word tied up in what some woman in a magazine looks like.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yep, that’s exactly the dilemma!

  8. Liz Says:

    really interesting. I grew up in a house where my parents praised effort but never for being smart. Somehow I assumed that I was average to slightly below average and only succeeded because I worked hard. and the assumption that I wasn’t very smart lasted well into adulthood. Talked with my parents about this as an adult and they were shocked. From their perspective, I was so unusually bright as a kid that they were worried I would have troubles with motivation, so they tried to downplay intelligence constantly.
    you’ll figure out the right path for your kids. but a middle road is probably wise.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about happening. There’s something to be said for knowing you’ve got the whole package in terms of taking risks.

      • Rosa Says:

        I think the key – probably for your student, who clearly needed more support than she got – is balance. So if your kid is hearing “you’re smart!” all over, you don’t have to say it much. If they are always surrounded by extra-smart kids, you might need to point that out because they might not hear you’re smart so much. Or they might hear it too much, in the form of “our school is for superior children” or whatever – it just depends.

        The same for grit/challenges. Some kids need us to step back and help less so they experience overcoming challenges themselves. Some kids have so little help and support they need more, or at least to hear from authority figures that what they are doing is hard and discouraging and that’s why sometimes they fail at it. When I was tutoring kids who aged out of foster care, they totally needed to hear that what they had accomplished with their lives (working, housing themselves, often taking care of others) were real accomplishments they could be proud of and the reason they needed to become literate or get their GEDs was so they could accomplish MORE, not that they could accomplish SOMETHING. Most of us are raising kids who will have accomplished more with less effort and more support at 18, and they won’t need praise if they just barely manage to feed and house themselves.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t know … I imagine she’s probably heard people who aren’t her parents praising her intelligence– she did graduate with a 4.0 from an R1. But… like a couple other people have noted in the comments, not hearing it from parents can make that other feedback seem untrue.

  9. gwinne Says:

    I do try to praise my kids in specific ways, esp. in regard to things they’re not ‘naturally’ good at or inclined to do.

    My kid already thinks she is brilliant, without any reinforcement. Humility is not her strong suit!

  10. Saskia Says:

    My husband was always told he was not very smart. He was the non-mathematically gifted child of two math professors and the only one of his siblings without a talent for math. He was told not to bother applying to private colleges because he wasn’t smart enough.

    He ended up graduating first in his class at a large state school and is now a tenured professor (not in a math-related field) at an Ivy League school. But he still feels like he doesn’t have a lot of innate talent.

    • MidA Says:

      Wow, crazy; he sounds like Leonard on Big Bang! Does his family still make him feel like he’s lacking?

      • Saskia Says:

        Well, his parents died several years ago. But they always believed he was not all that bright (because not good at math = dumb) and regarded it as some kind of bizarre stroke of luck that he had a job title that suggested he was smart.

  11. MidA Says:

    Great topic; smart idea and good work engaging with everyone in the comments! ;-)

    As a new mom, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, too. DD is a baby, but hitting milestones on the early side and is very cute, so we get a lot of compliments. It’s weird–I’ve been trying to figure out the right balance of praise, e.g. during tummy time: You’re so strong! Vs good job working so hard! I know she likely doesn’t know the difference, but it’s really practice for me so that it becomes second nature by the time it matters!

    Also, it’s hard because I’m hesitant to tell fellow moms about what she’s doing so as not to seem braggy in conversation; but it’s so cool to see how she’s developing! Oh well, that’s what doting grandparents and aunties are for! (I can also be honest with parents of teens who don’t remember the milestones/ages)! :)

    • Revanche Says:

      We do both! “You worked so hard!” and “You’re so strong!” and “You’re so motivated to try, that’s wonderful.”

      I don’t see a lot of fellow moms but I found myself a little trepidatious when I met up with an old friend who was a new mom and she seemed to be a bit effusive about LB’s strength because LB was younger than her little guy. I feel like we should be allowed to dote on our own babies without others feeling like we’re judging theirs.

      Maybe it’s just easier when there’s more of an age gap? If nothing else, you’re welcome to come brag on your baby over at mine, I publish notes on the baby monthly :)

  12. delagar Says:

    I’ve read reports that say boys get praised for natural ability (being smart, being athletic) and girls get praised for working hard — so that boys think they have gifts, and girls think they’re NOT very gifted, that they just succeeded by working really hard. I have no idea whether this is true.

    In ANY case, I praise my kid for both things. I tell her she is brilliant, and brilliantly talented. (Luckily, she is, in both cases, my delightful child!) And then when she works hard and succeeds at something, I shower her with praise for that, and point out how the hard work paid off. For instance, summer before last she had to pass four exams to get into the local high school, which meant she had to spend the ENTIRE SUMMER doing nothing but studying for those exams.

    Which she did! And blazed through them. I heaped mountains of praise on her, not just for the high scores, but for all the hard work she had done over the summer.

    And she’s an artist, and spends literally hours each day on her art. I point out how these hours of work are paying off in making her a better artist — sure, she has raw talent; but without the work, that talent would be nothing.

    tl;dr I think praising both is vital.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes– that’s what the research says, and men and women attribute their successes and failures to external vs internal factors differently on average. But the research also says that it’s better to be praised for working hard. So this could be one of those things where women are blamed for doing what would make a man more successful (see: management styles, etc.) or there could be something more complicated going on.

  13. Sarabeth Says:

    As a former gifted kid, I suffered all the classic stuff that Dweck is trying to prevent–and yes, some of it is certainly down to my temperament. I was naturally good at enough things that I didn’t have a framework for tackling stuff that I found actually difficult. I had way too much of my self-worth tied into success/good grades/etc (as opposed to being able to focus on learning new skills for the value of those skills).

    Now that I’m a parent, I’m trying not to replicate those issues in my own gifted kid. But I don’t think it does anyone any good to pretend that she’s not smart. Our strategy is to acknowledge that she’s smart, but try not to do so in the form of praise. Being smart is more or less a lucky break, while working hard is a choice she can make, so that’s the behavior we want to cultivate. But things like taking big risks, choosing to take on hard problems, persistence in the face of failure or setbacks, and emotional self-regulation are also things we praise. It sounds like your student’s parents focused on hard work as a way of downplaying her intelligence, but also at the expense of a lot of other important qualities.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:


      One of the things my parents also instilled in me is that with great intelligence comes great responsibility. But I’m not sure that I need to instill that into my own kids– while I think it’s important that I try to make the world a better place, I’ll settle for other people not making the world a worse place. I don’t feel like that’s something I should pressure other people to do.

    • jlp Says:

      It seems I’m always reading your posts a couple days too late to join in the conversation in real time….but I see that Sarabeth has beat me to the punch in any case.

      After reading Dweck, I was concerned about praising our kids for being smart (and winced whenever people outside our family did so – not infrequently).

      But then I realized it would be ludicrous to try to suggest to our kids that they are not smart (last week my 6 yo told me ze was going to count to 55 by a system I could not quite follow, until ze started counting: 10, 19, 27, 34, 40, 45, 49, 52, 54, 55), but we don’t praise them for it, just as we don’t praise them for being short, or having brown hair. I have been explicit with them that they are smart and that being smart is how they were born, not something they earned.

      They get praise for being kind, for sharing, for calming themselves down, or for working hard a on problem, especially when they are frustrated. We probably inadvertently reward them for being smart when we get excited when they grok something for the first time, but praise comes for character. In fact, the only times I’ve told my kids I was proud of them was when they demonstrated kindness and hard work.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        One phrase I remember a lot from my mom, You’re smart, you’ll figure it out if you try hard enough. (Or related, an exasperated, pretty sure you can figure this one out. Generally that one when DC1 wants one of us to find the cereal or hir shoes, etc.)

  14. Cloud Says:

    I’m sorry I missed this discussion yesterday! It is an interesting one.

    I lean towards having a mix of types of praise. Maybe if we lived in a world where other kids didn’t get praised for being smart, then I would skip it for my kids, but their classmates DO get praised for being smart. And if those classmates tend towards insecurity and need to brag/tear other kids down to feel better about themselves then they’ll make my kids feel like they aren’t smart. And I’m not having that!

    We did have a short-lived issue with a boy in my 7 y.o.’s class trying to tear her down- which led to an ultimately really good discussion with her about being smart but still needing to work hard, and how some of the kids who don’t seem smart to her right now might be smart on different schedules or in different ways or have other really great talents, and so what her classmate was doing of trying to make out that he was the smartest and therefore best was wrong for a lot of reasons… Then whatever issue was prompting the little boy’s insecurity got resolved and he stopped being such a jerk about being smart, which also confused my 7 y.o. So we got to talk about how people change, and how she and her friends are all just kids trying to figure this all out and sometimes they’ll make mistakes and that’s OK. It was a “teachable moment” rich few weeks, let me tell you.

    Anyway, I praise effort more than raw talent in all things, but I try to acknowledge the raw talent, too.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My mom’s reactions to that kind of thing (“smart” boys trying to tear me down did happen to me a lot) were either that the boy was jealous or that he was a sexist jerk. I think she was probably right– sexist jerkiness starts young. But it’s probably more mature to go about it the way you did– allows for the possibility of the guy to change.

  15. xykademiqz Says:

    This is a very interesting discussion!

    We acknowledge smarts and abilities and hard work, but we praise achievement. I have definitely said “Sure, that’s nice, but I bet you could have done better” when kids show me something I know they didn’t work particularly hard on or is below their abilities. Maybe they will grow up to tell their shrink “Mom never thought anything was ever good enough.”

    Eldest (15) has this propensity (which is also very annoying when it comes from my undergrads) to say “But I worked so haaaaard” when I know for a fact that he didn’t or he sort of did, but to little effect. Last fall, we had a particularly dramatic situation with his drawing class; he’s not particularly gifted for it, but he put a lot of very misplaced work into his portfolio and was about to get a B (and I could tell why). He was wailing “But I worked so haaaaard,” shading his drawing of a hand holding an eraser randomly, without rhyme or reason, and he was livid with indignation at the impending B and wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell him that the teacher’s comments were actually right on the money. The breaking point came when, in order to get through to him, I had to tell him that the drawing is now worse than it had been before he put the last two days of work into it (which was true). He broke down and started crying, because I think he’s known all along that it was true; then he came around and we looked at drawings online and he started looking, really looking, at how shading works. He got it, revised thoroughly and meaningfully, and when it was praise-worthy, I praised him quite profusely. And then he got an A. It was quite an experience, for both of us.

    My middle son (8) is what I would non-expertly categorize as gifted. He’s the kind of kid who’s just great at everything: e.g., he taught himself to read at a very young age, is well ahead of his class in math, and is overall very curious and observant regarding the world around him; he also kicks butt at sports and is very physically active and very social. He’s known what he wants and has had a very strong character from a very early age. And he’s absolutely fearless; he will kick butt in whatever he decides to do. We praise him when he does something where he is stretching beyond his current ability. We also let him know when he does something disappointing. There is frustration, but also perseverance. He recovers from setbacks very quickly, because he thinks of himself as awesome.

    I suppose we don’t really praise effort. We encourage and support when efforts fail, but we praise perseverance and we acknowledge that things sometimes take longer and that it’s not a big deal to fail as long as you try again later. We definitely tell them that they are smart, but not as praise, more of as a given and as a basis for “Of course you will eventually succeed, because you are smart; just keep at it.” We definitely praise achievements.

  16. Revanche Says:

    I tend to forget about the mistakes that my parents made because of all the things they DID do right for me when I was growing up. Namely, the lessons they chose to focus on that suited my temperament or pushed me a little out of my comfort zone.

    I was that kid who didn’t give a flying fwoop about looks or what people thought of them so when my dad would tell stories about some random cousin, he’d say: you might not be a great beauty like she is, very few people are, but you work hard and that’ll take you further than anything. (I can’t ever remember them telling me that I was smart and maybe that’s why I never believed anyone *else* saying that I was smart. Maybe. I don’t know why I never believed that.)

    Or I would hear: We know you’ll be successful, you work too hard not to be, but it’s really important that you choose a path that’ll make you happy.

    Back then, I kind of resented the lack of concreteness, the “choose your own adventure” thing was NOT something that I liked and I never trusted anyone telling me that I was smart anyway because “what do you know about my smart?” But the message that looks are noticed but they aren’t everything, and natural talent is only useful if you do something with it made me fairly confident that I could make good things happen.

    In the end, I believe I do have some mid-level smarts. There are always going to be those who are way smarter or much less so. I struggle with understanding things that seem to come naturally to others but I am generally willing to struggle and “look silly” while doing so in the pursuit of learning.

    With LB, I hope I can encourage hir innate talents and equip her with any that she doesn’t naturally have without making hir feeling inadequate for having to learn. I think ze will be some proportion of smart and I hope ze learns that innate talent and tools are wonderful but they only take you so far. And I know that while I don’t value beauty, our society does, so I won’t avoid all praise about looks because I think that if you care about that, feel like you’re not attractive, AND your own family won’t praise you, that’s going to be a whole load of other problems. Then again, ze could turn out to be like me and not give a hoot.

    We’re pretty effusive with the “you did so well, you tried so hard”, “we know you’re frustrated but this struggle is good for you and you will learn!” and the “you’re pretty wonderful” sorts of praise right now and we find that ze is at least a little responsive to that encouragement. But ze barely understands words right now, really, so who knows if we’re doing it right.

    It’s complicated.

  17. STEMPhD Says:

    One thing I would like to add to this is the impact of modeling of a growth vs. fixed mindset by parents. For example, my mom is “bad at math” and just “can’t do it unless it’s in a recipe, and even then”. I thought I was more like my dad, so I figured I didn’t get her “bad math genes”. However, I did grow up believing I was just bad at some things. One of my siblings still thinks they are bad a math to this day, but it’s totally a self confidence thing. When I read about Dweck’s research as a teacher, I was surprised that it was something people didn’t know already. I think grad school kind of forces you to have a growth mindset, otherwise you’ll have a really hard time making it through.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ugh, bad at math is a personal pet peeve of mine. Nobody is unless they have a learning disability and even then, many math LD just require different teaching methods than for non LD people.

  18. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Dunno about sleep need. I sleep like a motherfucker and also am lazy.

  19. Books that foster a growth mindset in kids (and grownups) | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] are totally into growth mindsets as a way to be.  In fact, we have blogged about growth mindsets at least a couple of times before.  And we’ve discussed Mindset by Carol Dweck here and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: