“Johnny, You’re So Smart!” Or Not?

by Vidya Guhan

mom_sonMost of us parents try to boost our children’s self esteem because we want our children to be confident and see themselves as highly capable. We want them to put their best effort into any task and face challenges head-on that come their way. We want them to succeed. So it should be good for them to hear from us, their parents, that they are intelligent and talented individuals, right? Unfortunately, wrong.

Telling our kids that they are smart turns out to be “a not so smart” comment to make. It leads to kids having a fixed mind-set, or to believe that intelligence is something that is fixed (you have what you have) and that’s it. That implies that there is nothing you can really do to improve it. Say for example, Johnny comes home with an A on a math test, and you say to Johnny, “That’s awesome—you are so smart.” The next time Johnny comes home with a D. Now Johnny thinks, “I must have gotten this D because I’m so dumb.” Failure is daunting to a child who has a fixed mind-set, because he does not see the results as something that he can really control or do anything about, but rather a reflection of his innate intelligence, or lack thereof. In fact, research shows that individuals with a fixed mindset tend to have a futile view about effort. They believe that if they work hard at something that means that they aren’t good at it, but if they don’t work hard they won’t do well—a real catch 22! Further, students with a fixed mindset care so much about how smart they will appear that they often reject learning opportunities—even ones that are critical to their success.

Then how do we raise kids who believe that intelligence is something they can develop? One thing we can do is to praise “effort.” This time, imagine that Johnny comes home with an A in math, and you say, “That’s awesome, you must have studied hard!” Should Johnny come home with a D one day, he would think, “Boy, I should have studied harder—then I could have gotten an A.” And this kind of thinking is precisely what research shows that kids develop when praised for effort. They call this a growth mind-set – a belief that intelligence is a potential that can be realized through learning, or that the brain is a like a muscle that can be developed. As a result, confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks become ways of getting smarter.

In contrast to kids with a fixed mindset, research shows that those with a growth mindset were much more interested in learning than in just looking smart in school. They had a very straightforward idea of effort—the idea that the harder you work, the more your ability will grow and that even geniuses have had to work hard for their accomplishments. When faced with a setback in school, they would simply study more or study differently the next time. Academically, they pulled ahead of their fixed mindset peers.

Fixed Mindset

  • Believe intelligence is fixed or static
  • Leads to a desire to look smart
  • Tendency to avoid challenges
  • Give up easily
  • See effort as fruitless or worse
  • Ignore useful negative feedback
  • Feel threatened by the success of others

As a result, may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential

Growth Mindset

  • Believe that intelligence can be developed
  • Leads to a desire to improve
  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as a path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others

Ever-higher levels of achievement

So then how do we reinforce the growth mindset in our kids? Try praising the process you want them to engage in, rather than their ability. For example:

  • “You really persevered and kept going without quitting. Well done!”
  • “You took a lot of care to do that task well. I really appreciate your effort.”
  • “That was a tough test, I really like the way you revised your notes so many times to make sure you knew the material.”
  • “I’m so proud of you – you tried again and again until you nailed that sequence!”
  • “You really paid attention and got that chore done quickly, thank you.”
  • “That’s cool that you picked the challenging topic over the easy one. You are going to learn so much.”

The bottom line: Here at NACD, we want our kids and parents to know that they can achieve so much with motivation and effort. Are you listening to all the naysayers out there that say your child’s brain and intelligence is what it is, and there is nothing you can do about it? Or do you believe that it is something that can be developed? Join us and subscribe to a growth mind-set that says that intelligence and ability are something that we develop with motivation and specific directed effort. With NACD you won’t be working harder, but working smarter, doing exactly what needs to be done for your child’s development!


Carol S. Dweck (2008). Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn. Independent School Magazine. National Association of Independent Schools. http://www.nais.org/publications/ismagazinearticle.cfm?ItemNumber=150509

Michael Graham Richard. Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset: Which One Are You? http://michaelgr.com/2007/04/15/fixed-mindset-vs-growth-mindset-which-one-are-you/


Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 25 No. 5, 2012 ©NACD

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