Chances are you’ve been telling your child he’s smart since he uttered his first word. And there’s bound to be praise when he learns to count to 10 or masters writing his name. But telling your little guy “you’re so smart” too often can have some unintended consequences.
According to a study that was just published in Psychological Science, kids are more likely to cheat if you tell them they’re smart.
Researchers, including Kang Lee from the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, did an exercise with 300 kids between the ages of three and five. The kids were told to guess whether a card had a number higher or lower than six. In the initial trial, some kids were told they were “so smart” when they got the answer right, while others were told they “did well this time” or were not praised at all. In a later round of the same game, the experimenter left the room, telling each kid not to look at the card. Kids who were told they were smart were more likely to peek when they thought no one was looking.
Researchers concluded that kids know the difference between being smart and doing something smart. And when adults praise kids' innate ability rather than their single performance, it makes them inclined to want to uphold that positive perception of their intelligence—and they're willing to cheat to do so.
This isn’t the first time researchers have found negative repercussions associated with praising kids for being smart. A previous study found that telling kids they were smart undermined their motivation to achieve in the future.
The bottom line? There’s nothing wrong with congratulating your child when she does a great job, but flattery that focuses on her abilities or character can come with a lot of pressure for a kid to live up to that praise. It’s best to direct compliments for kids at their efforts, and assure them that you love them unconditionally—so that when your they do something not so smart (as kids are bound to do), they know that’s OK too.