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Being labeled as 'smart' can affect kids later in life
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When kids are told they are "smart" or a "math person" and perform well in early parts of their development, they are less likely to challenge themselves later in life and are more vulnerable when it comes to failure and not meeting standards later on in life. - photo by Mandy Morgan
"You are smart."

That's not a good thing to tell children, according to one Stanford University professor, who spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado.

Children who are labeled as smart or gifted become less likely to challenge themselves, because they are less comfortable with failure and therefore won't challenge themselves, said Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education, according to The Atlantic.

When children are praised for being "smart," they will believe that they are not smart when they make mistakes, and will want to avoid doing things they might fail at, for fear of being perpetually un-smart, Boaler said.

"'Smart' kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding," The Atlantic reported. The mindset of staying in a comfort zone to avoid failure continues into adulthood, which can lead to having a "fixed mindset" of being either smart or not, instead of a "growth mindset," where people become knowledgeable through practice.

"Mistakes grow your brain," Boaler said. "When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory."

It's OK for parents to praise the actions of their children and their successes, but to not let those actions define the person they are, Boaler advised.

New York Magazine reported on a study in 2007 about the effects praise can have on children, from psychologist Carol Dweck. Fifth-graders were given an IQ test to complete, and afterwards researchers gave them a single line of praise. Some were praised for intelligence ("You must be smart at this"), others were praised for effort ("You must have worked really hard").

The children then chose another test to take, one they were told was more difficult but would teach them a lot, or one that was as easy as the first. Ninety percent of those who were praised for effort chose the harder test; a majority of those praised for intelligence chose the easier test.

"When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don't risk making mistakes," Dweck said of the study.

Nobody wants to set their child up for failure, but in trying their hardest to build up and affirm their child, parents could be doing just that.

Another effect of excessive praise of children is narcissism, which is what two researchers found as they surveyed and observed nearly 600 children and their parents.

"Parents who 'overvalue' children during this developmental stage, telling them they are superior to others and entitled to special treatment, are more likely to produce narcissistic children," wrote The Washington Post on the study by Brad Bushman and Eddie Brummelman.

However, if children are treated with appreciation and respect by parents and adults, they will foster the belief that they are a valuable individual, which is how self-esteem is developed, the Post wrote.

PsychCentral shares three better ways to praise kids:

  1. Praise the process, not the person: praise the strategy, praise with specificity and praise effort.
  2. Keep it real: Don't say, "Good job!" when it's not. Be sincere, because "kids may perceive inauthentic praise as a sign of failure."
  3. Stop praising altogether. "Instead of praising, try to observe and comment such comments acknowledge effort and encourage children to take pride in their accomplishments."