Praising Intelligence: Costs to Children’s Self-Esteem and Motivation

By Jennifer Paley, Writer and Bing Parent

A child runs up to you with a painting still wet. You hold it up and think what to say. A maelstrom of blue and red covers the paper.

Praise the process, not the person, proclaims Professor Carol Dweck, an eminent social and developmental psychologist at Stanford. Her return to the Bing community inspired so much advance interest that Director Jennifer Winters decided to change the venue of the 2011 Distinguished Lecture on May 10 to the vast Cemex Auditorium in Zambrano Hall at the Knight Management Center, new home of Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Such a setting was not unusual for Professor Dweck. She has spoken widely to members of the corporate world, so revolutionary are her theories on ways to motivate children.

Dweck’s mission, or, as she would say, the effort she is making through her passionate, dedicated labor, is to counter the self-esteem movement, which handed out verbal trophies (and sometimes real ones) to children for everything they did, hyperbolically praising their intelligence and abilities.

This kind of praise, which puts the adult more in the role of judge than of guide, actually undermines children’s self-esteem.

Dweck talked about “heaping praise onto children” to describe the burden of person, or intelligence, praise.

What is wrong with “global, person, intelligence, brilliance, perfection, specialness praise”?

The main problem is that “children become afraid of making a mistake, afraid that if they do, you won’t think they’re so smart and special anymore. So they start shying away from hard tasks and get stuck in their comfort zone.”

“It can also be addictive,” Dweck stated. “And if you give children too much of it you’re taking their achievement away from them; you’re making it your thing rather than theirs.”

Ironically, global, person praise is limiting. Whether directed at intelligence, talent or other abilities, it tells a child “that’s what I value you for” and “you have a certain amount.”

Once children deem that qualities like intelligence or other natural abilities are fixed, they become vulnerable to forming what Dweck terms a fixed mindset, believing they have no control over their potential.

If intelligence is seen as “carved in stone,” as Dweck writes in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, children will assume that if they need to try hard, they must not be intelligent. Or, they will infer that if they really are so bright then they must not need to work hard. The belief that heightened ability obviates the need for effort is “one of the worst beliefs children can have.”

“It’s the case often that kids who have natural ability learn to coast on that ability—they have never been required to work as hard as others to learn how to go beyond what comes naturally. And when they have to later,” Dweck said, “and they all have to, many are not able to do it.”

Evoking athletes who were number one as teenagers but never managed to sustain their talent through dedicated labor, Dweck declared that “one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is the ability not just to find out what they’re passionate about but to push beyond their initial ability.”

The right kind of praise makes this possible.

Dweck’s work conveys that children who receive person praise—“you are so smart, you finished that puzzle”—lose interest in challenging tasks. They avoid risk in order to “look smart at all costs.”

The cost is that they become “non-learners.”

How then do children become “learners”?

There’s an ideal mindset Dweck characterizes as a growth mindset that can develop with process praise. Its “cardinal rule is learn, learn, and keep on learning.”

Process praise narrates the activity—you worked for a long time on that puzzle and put the pieces together. (This example of process praise and those following in italics derive from interactions between Bing Nursery School teachers and their students).

Children praised for engaging in the process of figuring out a puzzle—I saw you were really thinking about where that piece went. At first you didn’t know but then you rotated it and matched up the edges—relish challenging puzzles and choose difficult tasks. Here, the emphasis is on their learning, growing, and experiencing the charge in their brains as neurons connect and form.

That spark is the source of the bright eyes of the baby in the photograph Dweck showed to illustrate an openness and splendor that never has to diminish.

Yet it does.

Dweck’s work at Bing Nursery School reveals that children as young as three-and-a-half and four already express a tendency toward a growth or a fixed mindset.

In one study, which involved four-year-olds enacting scenes with puppets, children who received person praise immediately exhibited a fixed mindset.

Once a child chose a puppet, the researcher used a “teacher puppet” to ask the “child puppet” to do a set of pretend drawings.

Children whose puppets were given person praise, “you are a good drawer,” in response to their first set of pretend drawings were “unwilling to take on difficulty and unable to cope with it” after the teacher puppet pointed out “mistakes” in subsequent pretend drawings (for example, an omission of wheels on a bus).

Ultimately, all the child puppets successfully rectified these “mistakes,” but in the meantime those told they were good drawers “felt they weren’t good at drawing.”

“They evaluated themselves negatively,” Dweck recounted, “and they stopped persisting.”

This discovery is especially poignant in light of Picasso’s observation, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

If person praise can blight a child’s creativity, even in a pretend scenario, it also has the power to subvert a child’s confidence. Young children who feel judged for making mistakes tend to think “they’re not a good kid when something goes wrong,” Dweck explained, and in a fixed mindset they believe that “that badness is a stable trait.”

Given the gravity of these findings, Dweck set out to determine whether process praise given to children as young as ages one to three could predict a growth mindset.

A longitudinal study she recently completed in collaboration with the University of Chicago shows that children accustomed to process praise as babies and toddlers did display resilience and a desire for challenge five years later.

How else can a growth mindset burgeon in children?

Attitudes can be influenced by example. During the question and answer session one audience member expressed concern about a propensity toward perfectionism in children.

“First, I would stop praising perfection,” Dweck advised. “I would start saying, ‘I want to see some mistakes.’” And, adults can broadcast their own mistakes.

If adults model perfectionism, children will internalize that way of being; however, when adults are process-oriented, children learn to recover from setbacks and even to embrace and enjoy struggles.

Dweck commented, “Rarely do you come home at the end of the day and say, ‘Honey, I had the most amazing struggle.’”

But with a growth mindset that values learning from experience children are able to cope with the struggles that inevitably accompany life.

“Struggle means you’ve committed to something you value. It should be something we’re proud of,” Dweck asserted, “not something that we hide. Persistence in the face of setback: that is really something to praise, the strategies kids use when they’re trying to solve something, the choices they make, like choosing difficult tasks when they’re doing a project.”

What happens when there is no struggle and a child completes a task quickly and easily—and then is praised for it?

“‘You did that so quickly and easily,’” Dweck dramatized. “‘That’s impressive.’”

“Why is it impressive?” she asked. “They already knew how to do it.”

Applauding effortlessness in children “can sabotage their challenge-seeking and resilience in the future.”

“What are they going to do in life that’s going to impress people without their working hard?” Dweck inquired.

Her answer: “Very little.”

Dweck offered an alternative message. “You did that so quickly and easily. I’m sorry I wasted your time. Let’s do something you can learn from. Let’s do something that’s fun.”

That way, children are always aware that they can surpass their current ability, and they won’t be satisfied defining themselves by labels like “talented” or “gifted.”

Another audience member asked about gifted programs. Dweck responded that as long as these programs encouraged a growth mindset they would not jeopardize a child’s will to learn.

The risk is that a child who is too invested in being identified as gifted may not gravitate towards challenges out of fear of not appearing smart.

Even giftedness waxes and wanes, Dweck remarked. “The literature is littered with child geniuses who lost their edge. The prodigies were good at things, but many of them never learned how to pursue things on their own or push beyond their comfort zone.”

And, she reiterated, it’s important for children to understand that intelligence and effort are not in conflict. In fact, effort plays a prominent role in “creating talent and intelligence.”

Talent is merely “a starting point.” Along with effort, qualities such as persistence, perseverance, and resilience are all critical for any natural ability to flourish. These are the attributes that spring from a growth mindset.

Dweck’s research demonstrates that both seventh graders and pre-medical students performed better when they applied a growth mindset to their coursework.

The seventh graders were motivated to study hard so that “they could make neurons grow” after interacting with Brainology, an online workshop Dweck created that acquaints children with the concept of new neural connections made through learning.

Those pre-med students with a growth mindset looked for conceptual themes within the subject matter, worked together in study groups, and sought out the teaching assistant or the professor for help when needed. Channeling effort into learning, they proved more effective on the final exam than those students with a fixed mindset who studied solely for exam results.

Excellent results stem from striving for profound understanding of the material.

Children are “born with such an irrepressible exuberant desire to learn,” Dweck affirmed. They eagerly embark on “looking around the world, learning to walk.”

The way to nourish that innate enthusiasm is to appreciate their endeavors and “go into it with them and understand and share what they’re doing.”

Appreciating their pursuits—you drew a large circle in the center of the page, with lots of lines extending outward; you used both hands to climb onto the swing by yourself—communicates to children that their effort is important.

A member of the audience suggested video recording a child beginning to read and then unfurling the recording in the future. Dweck seemed delighted by this idea.

“Take them back to where they were at the beginning,” Dweck enthused, “and show them how far they’ve come. I think that is often invisible, and it’s very exciting when it’s made visible.”

Highlighting their progress through process praise—you used to sound out each letter and now you can read that word (as opposed to person praise, “you are a great reader”)—will galvanize

children because it turns learning into a continuum of effort and improvement

(as opposed to “the natural product of brilliance”). And that is when motivation takes root.

How does self-motivation thrive?

In addition to process praise, Dweck proposed another option: no commentary at all.

In response to a question, “How do you emphasize a child’s internal feelings of working hard?” Dweck answered, “You let them experience the internal feelings of working hard.”

In research studies it is complicated to offer no feedback, but “in real life hands-off is often better. The child is enjoying something, let them enjoy it. They’re working with something, let them work with it. We don’t need to co-opt everything.”

Dweck continued, “As much as possible the process should belong to the child. All you can do is teach them how to gain and maintain their own self-esteem through the love of challenges and the knowledge of how to persist and the thrill of mastery. These are things they can take with them wherever they go.”

When children do seek feedback from adults, an appreciation of their efforts—

It looks like that block was very heavy. It took a lot of effort and you lifted it—reflects the activity back to them, inviting them to bring in their own subjectivity.

For those who may tend toward a fixed mindset themselves, or who may have praised children’s talent or intelligence in the past, Dweck underlined that mindsets can change. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have found that the mind is malleable, in both children and adults.

And a growth mindset can be taught.

Dweck asked members of the audience to give one another an anecdote in which a fixed mindset manifested itself. The room was astir as people confessed to such missteps as pretending to have read a book in order to appear knowledgeable or believing that a “talent” could not be further cultivated.

In a growth mindset, mistakes like these would be recast as opportunities to evolve.

That’s how children’s confidence develops. Their belief in themselves is tantamount to their belief that their

natural abilities are dynamic.

Extending her research into the study of willpower, Dweck establishes that Stanford students who believe that willpower is an unlimited resource are able to draw on it to stay more focused, and, for example, not to procrastinate during exam time.

From nursery school to college and beyond, in Dweck’s vision praise is

specific so that the mind can be limitless.

The child awaits a reaction to the painting. I see a lot of blue and red paint. This part is purple where the two colors came together. Look at those brush strokes! You moved the brush all around the paper.


Professor Dweck describes some studies that illuminate the way mindsets work

Although a lot of the research I’ll talk about was with older children, we find many, even most, of the same things with younger children.

One of the ways we studied mindsets extensively is in the context of the transition to seventh grade. We look at transitions because that’s when students encounter difficulty, and that’s often when mindsets make a huge difference.

We followed hundreds of students across their transition to seventh grade, and we measured their mindsets at the beginning; that is, by asking whether they thought intelligence was something fixed or something that could be developed.

Our first finding was that those who endorsed the fixed mindset said “looking smart was the most important thing.” For example, they agreed that “the main thing I want when I do my schoolwork is to show how good I am at it.”

But the ones who endorsed the growth mindset said “it’s much more important for me to learn things in my classes than it is to get the best grades.” They cared about grades, but they cared even more about learning.

When we looked at those seventh graders over the next two years, even though both groups entered seventh grade with identical math achievement test scores their grades jumped apart by the end of the fall semester and continued to diverge over the next two years. The students with a growth mindset achieved the stronger performance.

A Brain Wave Study: “Tell me when I’m right” vs. “Teach me something new”

More than any other study we’ve done, this one shows how a fixed mindset turns students into non-learners.

We brought college students one at a time into our brain-wave lab. We outfitted them with a cap full of electrodes that measured signals from different parts of their brain, and we were especially interested in the part of the brain that told us they were harnessing their attention to receive important new information.

Once they were wired up, we put them in front of the computer, and the computer asked them a long series of very difficult questions like “What’s the capital of Australia?” (Most people say Sydney or Melbourne but it’s Canberra).

The students typed in their answer. A second and a half later the computer told them whether their answer was right or wrong, and a second and a half after that the computer told them the right answer.

When we looked at the brain waves we saw that the students who had a fixed mindset entered a really strong state of attention to find out whether they were right—and that was it. Their job was done.

But the students in a growth mindset entered a strong state of attention to find out whether they were right or wrong and then entered another very strong state of attention to find out what the right answer really was.

Later, we gave everyone a surprise retest on the items they had gotten wrong, and we saw that the students with a growth mindset scored significantly higher than those with a fixed mindset because they cared about learning.

If you extrapolate this to life, you have one group going around the world saying, “tell me how great I am, tell me how smart I am, tell me when I’m right.” But the other group is going around and saying, “tell me when I’m wrong, teach me something new, tell me something I don’t know.”

And you can see over time how one group, the growth mindset group, would really accrue a more substantial body of knowledge.

How Praise Operates: “Our language tells children what we believe and what we value”

Let me tell you about our work with the pre-adolescents. We brought fifth graders to a room in their school and gave them ten problems from a non-verbal IQ test in which they were asked to complete the matrix with the pattern that completes the series going both down and across.

The initial problems were pretty doable so most kids did well, and after they finished the ten problems we gave them feedback.

A third of the kids got intelligence praise: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”

A third of them got process praise, and that refers to the process the child engaged in. In this case we praised effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard.”

And a third group got something like “good job”: “Wow, that’s a really good score.”

I won’t talk a lot about this last one because it was in the middle—not as good as process praise but not as bad as intelligence praise.

What happened?

Our results were so striking we did the study six times, with kids from different backgrounds, from different regions of the country, and we found the same thing over and over. What I’m going to tell you is a composite of the six studies.

The first thing we found was that, yes indeed, praising intelligence put kids in more of a fixed mindset compared to praising effort. But the most amazing thing was that praising intelligence instantly turned the children into non-learners.

After we praised them we gave them a choice. “What do you want to work on now?” We offered something in their comfort zone where they’d be sure not to make mistakes, they would do well, and essentially not risk the intelligence label they had just been given. We also offered a task that was hard and different; they might make mistakes and get confused, but they’d learn something important.

The majority of the students praised for intelligence wanted the task in their comfort zone so they would not put themselves at risk of losing that positive judgment. But the overwhelming majority of students who were praised for their effort chose the difficult task they could learn from—over and over. It was quite a striking and consistent finding.

Later we gave everyone a very difficult set of problems, and here we found that any confidence that had been instilled by the intelligence praise was short-lived. As soon as the problems became difficult the students praised for their intelligence lost their confidence.

If success meant they were smart then this struggling meant they were not. They stopped enjoying the task, they didn’t want to take it home to practice, and then when we looked at their performance—even later, when the problems became easier—it kept declining.

But when we looked at the students whose process was praised we found that they maintained their confidence, remained engaged during the difficult problems (many said those were their favorites), and kept gaining in performance on this IQ test.

The story doesn’t end there. We told the students that we were going to take this research to another school. “Would you fill out this paper,” we asked. “Don’t put your name on it, but write a note to a student in another school, telling them about your experience.”

We also left a little space for the

students to report their scores. What we found was that about forty percent of the students praised for intelligence lied. And only in one direction! Now wait a minute—it was anonymous, the note was to someone they would never meet. Why would they lie?

I think it means that, within a fixed mindset when your intelligence has been praised, admitting that you did poorly on something, that you made mistakes, is so undermining, so humiliating, you can’t even admit it to yourself.

I don’t think that’s how we want our kids to be. When they don’t understand something, when it’s difficult, when they’re struggling with something new—that should not be a time for them to hide it. It should be a time for them to address it or to ask for help or instruction.