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Success comes from praising effort rather than intelligence

Are We There Yet?
Charla Belinski
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Want smart kids? Don’t tell them they are.

It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but researchers say it’s more than just reverse psychology; it’s key to raising successful kids.

It’s not unusual for parents to believe that when kids sail through school at an early age, they must be gifted. When they make it through elementary school with a minimum of effort and a load of good grades and positive strokes from teachers, parents smile and praise their intelligent offspring. But when the going gets tough ” say, seventh-grade algebra ” these kids often feel they won’t measure up. As soon as the schoolwork becomes challenging, many students mistakenly believe that if it’s hard they must not be smart. And their grades, and self-esteem, begin to suffer.



But how can that be? We’ve told them all their lives how smart they are, how clever, how gifted. And they have the standardized test scores to prove it. And isn’t intelligence a perfect recipe for success in life?

In truth, only 3-7 percent of all students are truly gifted; the rest are just your average run-of-the-mill smart kids. Not a bad thing to be, unless you’re stuck in the mindset that it’s all you’ll ever be.



Researcher Carol Dweck, author of the aptly-titled book “Mindset,” gave two groups of students puzzles to work on. One group was praised when they put the puzzles together correctly, told how smart they were and how awesome their achievement was. The other group was simply praised for the process: “It looks like you worked really hard on that.” Then both groups were offered a more challenging assignment. The group praised for its intelligence declined the offer ” they didn’t want to risk not looking smart if the assignment was, in fact, more difficult for them. The group praised for effort, said, “bring it on.” In fact, one young participant stated, “I love a challenge!”

Not surprisingly, the group that was told how smart they were became discouraged, doubting their ability on the harder task. Students praised for their effort did not lose confidence, and their scores improved on the tasks that followed.

Thomas Edison tried 10,000 times before he finally got it right and invented the light bulb. But the difference between Mr. Edison and most of us is this: He didn’t see those 10,000 attempts as failures at all. He is famously quoted, in fact, as saying they were not mistakes, but lessons. Lessons that we take for granted, by the way, every time we flip a switch and our homes are miraculously flooded with light. He could have quit after a few experiments gone awry; he could’ve thrown in the towel and proclaimed it all too difficult. But he was a not a man who tied his intelligence to success.

If we constantly praise the outcome (good grades) rather than the process (learning), we’ll be left with kids who think they will only achieve success if it comes easily. How interesting it would be to have them believe that hard work and overcoming adversity also lead to success.

In a society that worships talent ” both academic and athletic ” and a generation bent on building self-esteem, we’ve managed to lower the bar so far it’s now smacking us in the face when we try to jump over it. Not every kid on the soccer field needs a trophy to feel good about playing. Not every kid in the fifth grade has to get a ribbon in the science fair. Not everyone who graduates from high school will get into an Ivy League school (and thank God, not everyone wants to!).

True success comes from the learning we do along the way.

Charla Belinski’s column appears every other Sunday in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Contact her at belinskis@ comcast.net.


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