Please, Don’t Call My Son Smart

don't call me smart

I’m not smart, I’m hard-working!

Before Max was born, I read The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids by Po Bronson in New York Magazine. The article is based on of a study conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck about the effect of praise on students.

The study is best described by Po Bronson here:

The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

The results of this study really resonated with me.

Time for a little background story. I grew up being told I was smart. My mom would often tell me that I was smarter than my brothers. (So sorry if you guys are reading this but it’s not true, I know!) The problem was, to an extent, I was smart. In middle school, I could often not pay attention in class, cram the night before and do decently well on tests. I also naturally scored well on standardized tests – what can I say, I’m a master of deductive reasoning.

I basically cruised through middle school without any issues. I wasn’t a straight-A student but I also wasn’t trying either.

Then I reached high school.

I encountered Chemistry and Physics. The bane of my existence.

I still have distinct memories of how hard it was for my brain to grasp those concepts. The dense fog that clouded my brain when I tried to understand the periodic table and formulas and vectors and whatever crap it is that you learn in high school and promptly forget.

The concepts didn’t come easily. But, instead of putting in time and effort into understanding them, I became frustrated. With myself. Why didn’t I understand? Why did I have to try? Could I be… stupid?

That idea plagued me. And even though I couldn’t articulate it at that age (due to lack of self-reflection and maturity), it was pervasive.

My intellectual self-esteem never recovered.

I went to college where I promptly failed an overwhelming number of classes. Literally, failed. I have an entire semester of F’s because I didn’t show up to take any of my exams.

My young-adult reasoning went something like this: If I don’t try and I fail, then no one will think I’m stupid. But if I try and I do poorly, then everyone will realize I’m actually stupid.

Yes, I know. SO STUPID.

Luckily, for me, I met Mr. C who promptly nipped my behavior in the bud. I met him at a transition point in my life where I had just transferred to a new school because I failed out of my previous college after three 1/2 years. (I would have failed out earlier if I hadn’t gotten my one and only semester of A’s, which the school counselor found befuddling – to the extent that she agreed to give me another shot.)

Mr. C pushed me to put effort into what I was doing. He didn’t let me make excuses for myself. And I quickly found that I felt extreme satisfaction when I was rewarded for TRYING. Pretty soon, I realized I was pushing myself! I loved the feeling of doing well because I worked at it. And when I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, instead of thinking I was stupid, it motivated me to TRY HARDER NEXT TIME.

Without this mental turnaround, I would have never made it to and through law school.

This brings us back to Max and why I don’t want to call him “smart.”

A lot of the people that surround him often praise Max by saying he is smart. He claps his hands – so smart! He waves bye – so smart! He unzips a zipper – so smart! So on and so forth. And I get it. Wanting to praise a child is natural. Every new thing that he/she learns is wonderful and exciting. If not for my personal experience, I would love to call Max smart too!

But praising someone for being “smart” applies a passive label. It’s the same as saying, you have brown eyes, you are tall, you are right-handed. It makes it an innate quality that you are born with and not something you have control over.

Instead, I now understand that it’s far more important to praise the process. When Max makes multiple attempts to get a shape into his shape sorter, it’s easy to shout, “GOOD JOB, YOU’RE SO SMART!” But these days, I say, “Good job, I saw that you didn’t give up and you figured out how to get the shape in!”

Who knows, maybe one day, Max will grow up and complain about how I screwed him up because I never called him smart. But until then, please, don’t call my son smart.

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