As featured in Parentdish

Monday, 1 November 2010

My children aren't clever

From what I have seen, the thing to do these days is to tell your kids they are clever. More than clever, they are brilliant, and can do anything they want and become anything they want. Secondary teachers tell stories of parents, who, on hearing that their little darling hasn’t passed the exam they sat, blame the teacher. At no point does it enter their heads that it could be said darling’s fault.

Every so often the newspapers will publish details on some latest piece of research that has found that this is having a detrimental effect. Children are growing up expecting the world to fall at their feet and that everything is within their grasp. When they grow up, reality hits them. Hard.

While I am all for positive reinforcement, I am more a follower of Professor Carol Dweck’s philosophy. While Dweck, like several other social psychologists believes that IQ is not fixed, what makes her different is the focus on fixed and growth mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe success comes from talent alone, so someone who does well in a maths exam, does so because they are good at maths, With a growth mindset, someone does well because they studied hard.

There is research to back this theory up. I won’t go into detail here but basically it involved one group being told they were clever when they did well, another group being told they worked really hard. The ones who were told they worked really hard consistently performed better.

We shouldn’t put our children down. And I do think children need confidence. But I think I agree with Dweck. My children aren’t clever, they work hard.


  1. Good post! Yes, it is in the way you provide positive reinforcement. THe study you menaion took two sets of high school students, and gave them a test. One group were told they did well, clearly they must be good at X. The other group were praised for doing well because of their hard work.

    Next they were given the choice of two tests to do. One was easier than the other one. The children from the group who were told they were good because of their talent invariably chose the easy test. Whereas most of the children who were praised for doing well because of their hard work chose the hard test.

    I have seen otherwise normal, nice parents start to get boastful about their kids abilities without even realising they're doing it. All it takes is one person to say so-and-so did really well at X and suddenly everyone's child is reading above the average (showing a fundamental lack in their knowledge of maths!).

    I heard one parent having a gripe about how the teacher had given that week's gold maths star to a child who wasn't as good at maths as her child. It made me grit my teeth - the award was given to her because she'd worked really hard that week and had made a huge leap forward. Maybe there were other children who could do harder sums but they could do those harder sums the week before too. The award is for progress and hard work (same with the golden book award they give out each week)! But there are many parents who just don't get it.

  2. Thanks for commenting. My friend and I were just discussing this this morning. I don't think parental boasting is a good thing. Much of it stems from ignorance and it can put a lot of pressure on children unneccesarily. My children are being brought up to love learning because it is fun, not for the competitive aspect of it. More than one teacher has commented on this to me. I do think they appreciate it.

  3. I would agree with the thesis of praise for hard work as against statements about being clever. When children are told that they are clever then I am sure the bar must be set at that level by themselves. However,when told that they had worked hard and can achieve a bit more, then I believe they can be encouraged to change the setting of the bar level themselves.

    I was also lucky that I had a brilliant Physics teacher at school, who saw my interest, and constantly encouraged me, so that that became my chosen field of study. i would love to go and meet if if he was still alive to thank him for that interest.

    When asked by our children for facts for their homework, they were directed to the large number of books we have in the house (before computers and the internet made it easy) for the answers. They may have moaned at the time, but both, now grown up, enjoy the written word.

    So we all needed the guidance as to how to improve...I don't think we would necessarily have found out ourselves.

  4. Thanks for commenting Harry. Our children love reading and we consider that more important than being top of the class. Even Zander sits in his cot looking through whatever book he can grab off his bookshelf.