Should We Stop Telling Kids That They're Smart?

Studies show that telling kids they're smart or gifted harms them in the long run.  Are they right? 

By Henry Adeleye on January 22, 2016  


In today's ever more critical society, a new rule has emerged from the pits of hipster parenting.  My wife, who is a teacher at a gifted school, stumbled across a book that says that it is detrimental to tell young and growing kids that they're smart.  Because they may actually start to believe it, and who knows what damage that will cause if that happens?  In disbelief, I did a little research of my own and found that this idea is not only real, but is a growing trend.  The most recent purveyor of this, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford University, Jo Boaler, suggests that labeling your kid as 'smart' makes them feel they can do no wrong and creates a stagnant life for them as adults.  So is she right, or is this just another case of thinking that taking a kid's trophy away will make them a better person?  Let's get into it. 


Boaler believes that the 'S word,' as she calls it, should be retired completely.  She points to the following as a reason that there's a growing movement to do so. 

The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: 'Oh good, I'm smart.' And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: 'Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I'm not smart after all.' And that's the worst. That's a risk to avoid, they learn. 'Smart' kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.     

She instead thinks that parents should use situation-specific responses such as, "You did a great job!" or "You worked really hard, and it paid off!".  Other phrases she thinks should also be banned include calling someone a "math person" or a "science person", or even just a "person," because animals may get offended (ok, I made that last one up).  According to her, these phrases don't offer the opportunity for growth.  Additionally, when a child gets a perfect score on a test, she advises parents to show sympathy toward the child because they didn't get a chance to learn from their mistakes.  In essence, you should say, "Sorry you weren't challenged enough and didn't get the opportunity to fail this test."  


In her opinion, the demographic most damaged by the notion of calling kids smart is high-achieving girls.  The reason for this is very simple.   

Because it's girls who are told by society that they probably won't be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female PhDs there are in those fields. 

So, because a lot girls are told that they're not as smart as boys when it comes to math and science, they're less likely to challenge themselves in those subjects.  But, doesn't that mean that telling girls they're smart more often will...never mind.  And therein lies the issue.   


Telling kids they're smart can actually be just the kick they need to instill confidence in them.  Do we tell kids they can't sing, or aren't good at sports, or that they suck at playing instruments?  No, because we want them to be able to excel at anything they put their minds to and not be discouraged.  So why shouldn't we do the same with academics?   


Should we remove IQ tests for kids?  Or the schools that require them for admission?  Should we get rid of gifted programs for fear that the child may actually start to think that he or she is gifted?  Sometimes all a kid needs in order to challenge themselves is to believe that they're good enough to be able to conquer the challenge.  The first step to achieving any goal is to believe you're smart enough achieve it.   


Of course, giving children the impression that being smart means you can't make mistakes is admittedly a bad idea.  Mistakes are necessary for growth.  And smart people make mistakes.  But there's no harm in letting a kid know they have what it takes.  Parents are constantly being told that everything they say or do can damage their kids.  They're forced to tiptoe around them or else they'll destroy their self-esteem.  Kids (and adults, especially adults) will always mess up.  It's called life.  But it won't be because someone called them smart.