Family & Education

Why it's not good to label your child clever


Adults are deeply conditioned to notice when children have done something wrong. We think if we point out a child's mistakes, they will learn and change. However, criticism is demotivating and children simply stop listening.

Attitude and drive is what sets one person apart from another. It is not all about innate intelligence but rather curiosity, perseverance, creativity and seeking challenges.

An increasing number of schools are becoming aware of this. For example, my older two children at JFS have a page in their homework diary about developing a "growth mindset".

When parents are trying to be positive, we tend to use evaluative praise. Terms like "That's amazing", "You're so clever", "Well done" or "Good girl". This doesn't require much effort, isn't very genuine and doesn't tell your child specifically what was so brilliant so they can repeat it. Children may feel you are constantly evaluating their performance.

The psychologist Carol Dweck has undertaken fascinating research into how the words we use affect our children. In her study, children had a puzzle to solve. Some were praised for effort, "You must have worked really hard", while others were praised for ability, "You must be very smart".

When those same children were given a harder puzzle, the ones labelled smart didn't even want to attempt it. They develop a fixed mentality, the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait and you only have a certain amount. They avoid challenges so as not to risk appearing less clever.

Children praised for effort develop a "growth mindset", believing intelligence can be developed through education and hard work. These children embrace challenges, persevere and want to learn.

Giving a child the label "clever" doesn't only prevent them from under-performing, it actually causes it. With a fixed mentality, having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability.

Every word and action is sending your child a message. If you call them clever, there is no room for error. The key is to motivate so they feel confident and have strong self-esteem. Focus on what your children are doing right and mention every tiny step in the right direction. For example, "You remembered to bring your homework home"; "You are learning to do things you have to do even when you don't want to, that shows real maturity".

Describe the effort, attitude and strategies your child is using, not just the achievement. So not "Well done for getting 10 out of 10" but "You got full marks in your spelling test because you practised every day". Not "That's amazing, you scored a goal" but "You listened to the coach's suggestions and worked well as a team" .

Using this "descriptive praise" gives children daily appreciation and approval. The magic ratio is five positive comments for every negative, usually the precise opposite of what children experience at home and in school. Try it, it is honestly the most powerful motivator I know.

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