14 July 1998

Don't Praise Kids For Intelligence

Praising children for their intelligence could do more than just give them a big head. It might also leave them hopelessly ill-prepared for coping with failure and encourage them to avoid taking risks. That is the finding of new research published in the July issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, the researchers also conclude that labelling children as gifted or talented may be counter-productive. Instead of encouraging them to meet challenges and enhance their learning skills, such praise might in fact cause the children to become obsessed with justifying the label.

"Praising children's intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviours, such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks," says psychologist and co-researcher Carol Dweck of Columbia University. "However, when children are taught the value of concentrating, strategizing, and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this encourages them to sustain their motivation, performance and self esteem."

In other words, the trick is to commend kids on their efforts rather than their innate abilities. In six studies of 412 fifth-graders, the researchers observed that children who were praised for their ability were likely to believe intelligence is a fixed trait - and they tended to blame poor performances on their own lack of it. Children praised for their hard work, however, were able to blame failure on poor effort alone. Such kids then demonstrated a determination to learn strategies to do better next time.