When I was growing up, I had a reputation for being “the smart kid”. The same message was reflected to me by my family, teachers, and peers. But rather than boosting my confidence or inspiring me to do great work, what this did was cause me to be cynical and insecure. For one thing, I was praised for doing things that seemed easy, natural, and obvious to me, and that didn’t seem worthy of praise, so I came to discount the praise that I did receive. For another, I came to feel that it was a mantle I had to uphold, and developed a need to be perceived as smart to justify my self-worth. It was like an addictive drug whose effects wore off as I received higher and higher doses.
What I realized then and still believe now is that all kids are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for. I’m never impressed when kids are able to discover, analyze, and synthesize knowledge, because I already know they’re capable of it. If there are “smart” kids then there have to be “dumb” kids, and I simply don’t believe there is such a thing. What distinguishes kids is the quality and types of talents they harbor and express, not their value or their innate potential.
I have never encountered a kid that isn’t smart, but I have encountered plenty of kids who don’t think they are smart. I also know from experience that telling them they are smart won’t make a difference, because they won’t believe it. Instead, I consider it my job, as a tutor and academic coach, to PROVE to them that they are smart by showing them how their brain can function at its best.
Here is an article that explains the different benefits of positive and negative feedback. To sum it up, it says that when someone is just starting out with something new, encouragement helps to reward their efforts and keep them going, but when they have developed a certain level of skill, they come to ignore praise and become more interested in corrective feedback that helps them improve. Giving corrective feedback too early leads to discouragement, and praising someone for what they already know they are competent at has little positive effect.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t praise your kids. It means that you should give them honest, accurate feedback and encourage them to develop all of their skills, but where their skills are more highly developed, especially give them (or help them get access to) feedback that will help them improve, and with skills that they are just beginning to develop, especially give them feedback that will help them want to keep going.
[UPDATE: I just came across this quote in a Wall Street Journal article:
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found that 10-year-olds praised for being “smart” became less confident. But kids told that they were “hard workers” became more confident and better performers.
“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” wrote Prof. Dweck in a 2007 article in the journal Educational Leadership. “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”]