Kids need compliments and praise. They need to be edified, primarily by their parents, but a couple of recent studies have revealed that the way parents compliment children could have a negative impact on their behavior. By digging deeper into these studies, parents and people who work with children can have a better understanding of how they can avoid this pitfall.
Study 1: Telling Kids They’re Smart
This study was published in Psychological Science, and it studied a total of 300 kids, half age 3 and the other half age 5. The researcher played a pure guessing game with the child where they had to guess if the value of a hidden card was higher or less than 6.
The researcher told the children one of three things: “You are so smart,” “You did very well this time,” or nothing.
The researcher then hid the card one last time but stepped out before the child made their guess while reminding them not to peek.
As expected, some of the children did peek at the card when the researcher was out of the room, which was recorded on a hidden camera in the room. In the group of 3-year-olds, 40 percent of those who were told they had done well or who weren’t complimented at all cheated to win the game. However, 60 percent of those who were told they were smart cheated to win. In the 5-year-old group, the ratio was similar although there were overall lower numbers of children cheating.
Study 2: Telling Kids They Have a Reputation for Being Smart
This study was done by the same group of researchers with the same parameters. They used a group of 150 3-year-olds and another group of 150 5-year-olds to find out if telling kids they had a reputation for being smart would have a similar impact on the results.
Once again, they played a guessing game with the child, but this time, each child was either told “you have a reputation for being smart,” “you have a reputation for cleanliness,” or nothing.
Unsurprisingly, this study had the same results as the first, where children who were told they had a reputation for being smart were more likely to cheat than those who were told they had a reputation for being clean or those who weren’t told anything.
Why Does This Happen?
According to Gail Heyman, one of the co-authors of the studies, there are two possible reasons for this phenomenon.
One is that when a child is told they’re smart or have that reputation, they feel more pressure to live up to that statement which drives them to do whatever is necessary to win the game and maintain that appearance of being smart.
Her other theory is that when a child is told they are smart, it gives them a sense of superiority, so they feel that they are above the rules or that the rules don’t apply to them. Another theory is that the child fears to disappoint the researcher after the researcher has told them they’re smart, so they want to make sure they live up to those expectations and don’t disappoint the one who told them they were smart.
Next Steps for Parents and Educators
For parents, educators, and anyone else who works with children, this should be taken as a precautionary tale and encourage them to avoid “direct compliments” that focus on the intelligence of the child. Instead of telling a child directly that they are smart, it is best to tell them instead that they did well and praise the effort they put into whatever they’re doing.
Of course, nobody is perfect, and it’s impossible to do this every time, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind since the way a child is complimented has such a profound impact on their mentality and, in turn, behavior. Setting up the expectation of working hard at something allows a child to have the freedom to fail without feeling guilty or as though they have disappointed anyone. This way, they can still grow through the experience.