Here's What Experts Say You're *Really* Doing When You Tell Your Kid They're Smart

It’s been said that motherhood is the hardest job in the world, and while that may be debatable, it is a lot of pressure. While children have natural temperaments outside your control, you want to do everything you can to help them grow. But all too often, we resort to empty phrases and vague compliments without thinking down the road to what the implications of those words may be. Take the word “smart” for instance — professionals want parents to avoid using it, but why? The things you’re really doing when you tell your kid they’re smart may surprise you.

But before we dive in, a word of wisdom: Don’t berate yourself if you haven’t been following the advice of these experts precisely. All of life is a learning process and if there is anything we want our kids to understand, it’s that. Parenthood is no exception; we all have to be taught, challenged, and changed along the way. It doesn’t make our previous efforts failures, but rather building blocks to climb.

Having told your child he’s smart for the past 10 years isn’t going to make him a sociopath. Breathe easy. But if there’s a better way to build his confidence you’d want to know, right?

When you simply tell your kid she’s smart and leave it at that, here’s what you’re really doing.


Teaching Them To Look To Others For Approval

Guiding our kids to find their worth in the eyes of others is exactly what we're trying not to do, am I right? But using phrases like, "You're so smart!" and "I like what you made!" inadvertently do just that. Melody Pourmoradi, founder of the GiRLiFE empowerment series, tells Romper, "More important than telling a child they are smart is showing them how to find self acknowledgment and validation on the inside. Saying things like 'You should be so proud of yourself' or 'You did great, why don't you pat yourself on the back?' will prepare a child to be their own source of inspiration and success rather than looking to others in order to feel like they have done something great."


Taking Away The Chance For Them To Build Self Confidence

According to Tracy Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, it is important for parents to understand the difference between acknowledgement and praise. In an exclusive interview with Romper, Cutchclow says, "The best way to build our children up is acknowledgment, which sounds like 'You figured it out!' or 'You look so proud of your painting.' This is different from praise, which is really about our own opinion: 'I love it when you do that.' or 'You're an amazing painter.'"

It's a small difference in wording, so why does it matter? Cutchlow says that praise communicates that the important thing is what we think of what a child has done, rather than what they think about it. This creates in the child a reliance on other people's affirmations. Acknowledgment, on the other hand, builds self-confidence because it places importance on what the child likes or feels.


Depriving Them Of Constructive Criticism

Cutchlow also believes that constructive criticism has an important place. Part of learning necessarily includes failing, and our kids must learn how to fail in order to continue on to be successful. If they are accustomed to being told that everything they do is great just as it is, they will grow up to be frustrated, surprised, and stalled by failures.

Of course you don't want to kill their spirits either, so choosing how you will give criticism takes intentionality. "Go for high-quality feedback that focuses on your child's effort, strategy, or process", advises Cutchlow, who wants parents to return the lead to the child to solve the problem rather than pointing out the solution themselves. Some examples of constructive criticism include: "You went quickly and missed a few," "You started to clean up the spill and then you stopped. Check your work," and "You tried one way and it didn't work. Hmm. There must be another way."


Setting Yourself Up To Be Rebutted

You may have noticed (ahem), but the older kids get, the more likely they are to argue with you. And when it comes to empty praise, preteens and teenagers can whiff it out a mile away. In an interview with Romper, parent-teen relationship coach Fern Weis says, "Telling children that they are smart doesn't do much for building self-esteem. It's a generic statement, and children can always find a reason why it's not true. As they get older, they recognize it for what it is — their parents trying to make them feel better about themselves."

If your child isn't feeling particularly smart in the moment, you calling them that will only leave them feeling angry, ashamed, or misunderstood. Instead, try getting specific about the positive character traits that you do see. Weis says, "Your child may be very bright and still struggle academically. Rather than telling him he's smart, try this: 'I know that homework was difficult, but you were persistent and got it done.'"


Risking Creating A Cheater

Surprisingly, science has found a correlation between kids who are consistently told they are smart and a tendency to cheat. It seems counterintuitive, but actually makes sense once its broken down. Today's Parent reported on the study and noted, "Researchers concluded that kids know the difference between being smart and doing something smart. And when adults praise kids’ innate ability rather than their single performance, it makes them inclined to want to uphold that positive perception of their intelligence—and they’re willing to cheat to do so."

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