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To Raise a Good Future Employee, Stop Saying "You're So Smart"

Are you a parent raising the next generation? Well, don't forget that you're also raising a future employee. And raising a stellar future employee may require eliminating the phrase "you're so smart" from your parental vocabulary!

A new UC San Diego study finds that praising even young kids for being "so smart" isn't necessarily good for them. In fact, the study finds that kids who are repeatedly told how smart they are can give up easily, and turn to cheating. Oops.

Researchers separated 300 children in Eastern China into two groups. The children in the first group received no praise while playing a guessing game using number cards. In other words, they weren't told how smart they are. The second group of children, however, did receive praise, and lots of it. The children in this group were told repeatedly how smart they are, and that they performed well.

Then the researchers asked them not to cheat as a hidden camera recorded the game.

The children who had been praised repeatedly were much more likely to cheat and to react poorly to adversity -- and it didn't matter if the child was a boy or a girl! From the official UCSD press release:

An international team of researchers reports that when children are praised for being smart not only are they quicker to give up in the face of obstacles they are also more likely to be dishonest and cheat. Kids as young as age 3 appear to behave differently when told "You are so smart" vs "You did very well this time."

It turns out that children perform better when parents praise a specific behavior instead of issuing another round of "you're so smart." Instead of saying, "Look at what you painted! You're just so smart!" we should be saying, "I like how you used so many bright colors and made the sun that shade of violet" while leaving out any reference to intelligence level.

Otherwise, we risk creating a generation of adversity-averse young employees who will expect constant praise, and if they don't get it they will wonder what is wrong. Wait, this is already happening in the workplace, from what I've heard. Darn.

You're Just So Smart!
When I was a graduate student, my mom's good friend revealed on a whim one day how my mom thought I was "so smart" as a kid. But my Finnish mother, a member of the Greatest Generation, had never told me such glowing words herself. Perplexed, I mentioned to my mother what nice things her friend had said about me (e.g., that I was, ahem, "so smart"). I wondered why she had never told me that when I was growing up.

"Well," my mother said matter-of-factly, "If I had told you how smart you are, you would have gotten a big head. You needed to find out for yourself by learning and working hard."

Hmm. She did have a good point when I stopped to think about it. Not that she never praised me, but when she did it was very specific. "I heard you hit the high note and it sounded good," she might say after a band concert. "It's the first time you hit it without squeaking, after all the practicing you did at home." I had triumphed over adversity on my clarinet in public. My mother had noticed, and praised me for it. It felt great.

It can be easy to fall for our own hype, and to find innovative ways to keep winning by any means necessary in order to receive our next verbal Scooby Snack. The phrase "you're so smart" is a verbal Scooby Snack. It's also an open-ended phrase that could mean more than one thing. After all, there are many different types of smarts. There's book smart, emotionally smart, socially smart, common sense smart and street smart -- to name a few. So what are we really saying when we say "you're so smart"? We need to be more specific, or risk confusion.

I'm not saying we need to fall back into 1940s-era parenting techniques, but we should be more aware of the impact of our word choices. The corporate managers of 2030 will thank us.


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