Should we praise our kids for their intelligence?

Grow neurons, grow! (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Galindo; taken from

By Anthony O. Alcantara
It’s but natural for moms and dads to praise their kids for being smart. What insane parent wouldn’t?Then again, what exactly are we teaching kids when we tell them they are smart, or that they are geniuses?

A few years ago, I interviewed an executive of a company for an article. He was either in his late 40s or early 50s and he just topped the teacher’s licensure exam. I asked him how he did it, considering the demands of his job. I wanted to know if he studied hard for the exam.

“Actually, hindi nga ako masyado nag-aral (Actually, I didn’t really study much),” he said.

Surprised and somehow impressed, I prodded him with more questions. He said he prayed a lot and even sought the intercession of St. Jude before he took the exam. I was about to accuse him of unfair divine intervention. Still, he made it appear the test was a breeze for him. He made it appear he had oodles of IQ points that lower life forms such as myself lack.

But later on, I discovered he was a pretty diligent student in college and graduate school. He even won a scholarship. And he told me he has been teaching college students for many years already.

Aha! So he had some practice and worked hard after all. So why brag about not studying much?

2 mindsets

Dr. Carol Dweck, an expert in developmental psychology in the US, said people generally have two kinds of mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

Those with the fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed. It cannot be changed. People are either smart or dumb. And it stays that way forever. A test score on an IQ test is forever. They see that effort is useless because their intelligence is fixed. Their capabilities are wrought in stone.

Those with the growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed. They believe they can become smarter. They believe that an IQ score, or any score in any test, can be improved. Effort, especially deliberately directed effort, leads to success. They believe they can always improve in anything that they do.

We all exhibit these mindsets in different situations. This is just a simplification to show contrast, and demonstrate the perils of a fixed mindset.

So what?

So what if a child is made to believe that he or she is smart? And what if that child comes to the conclusion that being smart is a permanent thing? What if the child becomes convinced that everything should be easy? Learning numbers is easy. Learning words is easy. Writing is easy. Science is easy. Everything is easy because I’m smart. We are dealing with malleable and impressionable minds after all.

And what if the supposedly smart child suddenly flunks a test? That doesn’t seem to describe a “smart” person, does it? Professor Dweck said the effects of the fixed mindset on children and adults can be subtle, and yet it may affect various aspects of our lives in a powerful way.

Some children with the fixed mindset learn to avoid challenges in order to maintain their “smart” image. They also feel threatened by the success of others. They believe they are better and it should always be like that. Their abilities are fixed, right?

Truly successful and happy people generally have the growth mindset. Manuel V. Pangilinan, one of the most respected businessmen in the country, once said his success is not much a result of his intelligence or ability, but of hard work.

Focus and endurance

Haruki Murakami, one of the world’s greatest novelists from Japan, said a person needs three things to be a successful writer: talent, focus, and endurance. Of the three, he said focus and endurance can make up for the lack of talent most of the time.

So what do we do?

Well, for a start, we can begin by praising our kids more for the effort that they exert, and for the new things they learn. When they complete a puzzle, we say, “Wow, you must have worked hard on that one.”

Praise effort more, rather than intelligence. Recognize improvement rather than fixed qualities. That’s what Dweck recommends. I heartily recommend her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”, which is available in some inconspicuous crevices in bookstores.

Mindsets can change

The good thing about the growth mindset is that it can always be learned at any age. The language and behaviors of the growth mindset can be mastered.

Right now, in order to remind myself of the growth mindset,  I’m praising myself for the effort I’ve exerted to write this.

“Good job, Ton. Hey, I see some neurons growing.”

I hope all of you grow neurons, too.


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