It's easy to tell your child they're smart, but studies show that it often does far more harm than good. Here's some ways to build your child up without resorting to problematic praise.
What's the big deal? Why shouldn't I tell my child they're smart? They are smart!
Good parents want to praise their children. Not only do children need to hear praise from parents, but nothing else can substitute the praise of a parent. Praising children both privately between the two of you and praising them publicly in front of friends, family, or coworkers are equally vital for their confidence and overall self-esteem. And parents should praise as often as we can remember to do so, but telling them they're smart, even if it's true according to scores and accolades they've earned, doesn't really offer them personal praise but a label.
The label of being "smart" categorically separates them from others, specifically the "lesser" smart students. What we're seeing in classrooms at an alarming level is a rise in students who practice "intellectual bullying," a type of bullying that doesn't require a bulk of muscle or size to intimidate and manipulate others but a bulk of brains, specifically students in who are in gifted programs. And just like a bully who uses his size to compensate for his or her feelings of inadequacy from trauma at home or elsewhere, the bully who uses his brain is also compensating for feelings of inadequacies, usually based on the fear of being perceived as "not smart."
But what is a "smart student", really? Someone who acquires information easily? Memorizes easily? Sits still in class and always raises their hand before they give their answer? Are they the first one to raise their hand? Does it mean they score well on tests and get solid good grades without really having to work for it? Do they have analytical skills and display deep intelligence?
If so, then they're intellectually gifted. And elevating a child for something that comes naturally to them, like beautiful hair or well-shaped fingernails is an observation, not praise. The difference comes down to behavior that is capable of being replicated. A complementary observation such as "you're so smart," doesn't inform the child how to replicate the behavior.
The child has done nothing to earn the praise except be themselves if they are intellectually gifted. How can they replicate something that comes naturally?
This is problematic because of the very nature of learning itself, which requires mistakes and lessons from those mistakes. I have yet to meet the parent that wants their child to be an intellectual bully, or wants their child to be afraid to make mistakes, or to confuse mistakes for failure and miss the lesson that is always implanted in the mistake.
Mistakes are not failure, they're lessons.
So rather than offering observations as problematic praises, genuine praise recognizes their effort and addresses the work behind the lesson, regardless if they achieved a goal or haven't done so yet.
What is "genuine praise?"
Genuine praise is situational. It seeks to address the core experience you desire to highlight with your child in an authentic language that merits their work and effort, something specifically that they are able to replicate. And the focus of the praise should be about their effort, not so much the results.
There will be days when our child won't get the scores they wanted, or they'll get cut from the team, or they'll make a mistake, or they won't get the scholarship, or won't be accepted into the college of choice. The results-driven approach will eventually let them down because this is real life, and we don't always get the result we want. What we want are children who grow into adults that can weather less-than-satisfying-results with confidence and know that despite the result, they have done their best and hopefully learned something along the way.
It takes a little more effort and some practice on our part as parents to seek out praise with specificity regarding the child's situation. But these are some that I use and have hear others use in academic situations:
"Good effort, I know you gave it your all."
"You did your best."
"I like how you didn't give up."
"Way to puzzle it out and find the answer!"
"I'm proud of how hard you worked."
"I can see you learned a lot from that experience, and that's awesome."
"My son ran in the 5k race, and beat his old record," for instance points to his personal effort, not where he placed in the race.
"After weeks of practice, she was able to nail that piano piece beautifully." This speaks to her work ethic and practice, and is more meaningful praise for the student because it focuses on something that can be replicated, the simple merit of practicing.
"I know you're bummed you didn't make the team, but you played your best and didn't give up." Sometimes our children experience the sting of real life disappointment. We can model the healthy way of encountering these situations with grace, wisdom, and lesson-seeking lenses. What was learned in the midst of failure? How is the failure a lesson? I like to have students listen to Olympic athletes in these cases. What do these best-of-the-best say to themselves when they miss the landing, or fall down, or come in last? "It wasn't my best, but I'll try harder next time." They're mentally strong in the face of failing.
Failure is not the opposite of success. It's part of success. ~Arianna Huffington
There are countless other ways to offer genuine praise without labeling a child "smart." To really give your child true value and confidence, recognize their effort and the lesson in mistakes. That's something that will empower them for the rest of their life.