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Tuesdays with Jane: Don’t Tell Your Children, “You’re Smart!”

Volunteering at an education booth at Minnesota’s State Fair let me observe parent-child interactions as passers-by tried toothpick puzzles along our front counter as well as trivia questions on the boards behind us.

Most parents lovingly encouraged their children, but a few incidents triggered this blog’s topic: Telling your children, “You’re so smart!” can stunt their academic ability.

Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research at Stanford showed that children develop either an effort-based or ability-based mindset toward their own capabilities. An effort-based child says, “If I work hard enough, I can do this”—and often perseveres on difficult tasks.

An ability-based child says, “I’m good at [or not good at] this kind of puzzle”—and often shuts down if they can’t succeed right away. How parents and teachers talk about children’s abilities plays a huge role in creating mindsets. (Check out this video for more information.)

It turns out that perseverance, not innate ability, is the real key to smartness. So, set up a few toothpick puzzles for your child (google the term and you’ll find lots of examples) and try out these phrases to develop an effort-based mindset in your child:

  • If your child struggles with the puzzle, say, “This one might take a bit more time and effort,” rather than, “This one is hard, isn’t it?”
  • Instead of, “You’re so good with these puzzles,” say, “You really concentrate and work hard with these kinds of puzzles.”
  • Instead of, “Here, let me show you,” give a hint that helps them think about it differently, such as, “How many toothpicks are there? Now, what do you know about squares that might help you solve this?” or “Look again and see if you can tell me which toothpick is positioned differently.”

A few parents failed to give their children enough time, hustling them off, or worse, reached over their shoulders to move toothpicks into place, saying, “This one is too hard for you.” Others said, “Your sister is better at these. Why don’t you let her try?” Or, “Why would you want to stop here? You don’t like these kinds of puzzles.” Or, “I was never good at these—don’t worry if you can’t do it.” All of these hint that intelligence is fixed—and that the child may fail no matter how hard they try.

Compare that to the young teen who systematically worked through each puzzle and trivia question, taking his time, until his father said, “Come on, everyone else is waiting for us,” to which the boy replied, “But this is the best thing at the Fair—why can’t I finish?” That father stared at his son for a minute in puzzlement, then nodded and settled into studying all of the trivia questions himself.

Everyone who took time at our booth, and maybe got a few hints that supported independent thinking, solved every puzzle. Effort creates ability—that’s a mindset to work on.

By Jane Kise, Ed.D. – Educational Advisor and Consultant
Jane  writes an insightful post every Tuesday for Kidtelligent. Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is