How Calling Your Kid Smart Could Actually Hurt Them Later In Life

Affirming your child's intelligence is just an innocent boost of their confidence, right? Actually, a recent study found that your words might be doing more harm than good. Even as young as 3 years old, researchers found that telling your kids they're smart may actually make them bad students later in life. For both parents and teachers alike, it's an important lesson to learn earlier rather than later. This is because the study found that praising a child's intelligence led to children being more likely to cheat on their assignments — a habit that no parent would want their child to get used to.

The study, titled "Praising Young Children for Being Smart Promotes Cheating," was published in Psychology Today last week. To get to this conclusion, researchers watched 300 children between the ages of 3 to 5 play a guessing game with a teacher. Afterward they were either told "you are so smart," "you did very well this time," or were given no praise at all. As the teacher left, the subject was then asked by the teacher not to cheat by peaking at the answers on another desk. Upon the teacher's departure, the "praised" children then did just that, and to a much higher degree than the other two groups, according to the study.

So should parents stay silent about their kids' academic progress? Not necessarily; the quality of feedback is more important than the quantity of it. "It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” the study's co-author Gail Heyman told The Independent. But, as Heyman explained, what the "study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well."

Immediate intelligence praise aside, the research team also found that the same dishonest behavior still happens when children are told that they have a reputation for being smart. The reasoning, as you might guess, has to do with a perceived heightening of standards.

"When children are praised for being smart or are told that they have reputation for it, they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so," co-author Li Zhao told Psych Central.

Getting something "wrong," whether it be a simple guessing game or a question on a final exam, is thusly viewed as a disappointment to authority figures.

Undue praise and participation trophies aside, linking a child's identity (instead of their accomplishments) to their academic success sets students up for failure down the line. Reinforcing the idea that a children will always and must always be "smart" doesn't promote success, just potential disappointments.

Obviously, kids still deserve support in the classroom and in at-home learning. “We want to encourage children," co-author Dr. Kang Lee told The Independent. "We want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”

Remember: Kids' whose accomplishments were praised ("you did well this time") didn't exhibit the same sneaky disobedience.

Applauding a child's academic accomplishments shows kids that their studies are a continuous journey, replete with ups and down, and that it's OK for them to not know things, to ask questions, and to be imperfect. Focusing on end results only negates true learning and development, reducing kids to ranks and numbers. Cheating is a hard habit to break, and this report revealed that kids are privy to the habit while they're young. As this research suggests, to raise successful and honest kids, keep the "you're so smarts" to a minimum and praise actual hard work and genuine effort instead.

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