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Praising a Preschooler for Being Smart Can Backfire, International Study Finds

Telling a child how smart he or she is comes naturally to a lot of parents and early-childhood educators, but a new study of preschool children in China suggests that may do more harm than good.

The study was published in September in the journal Psychological Science. It found that praising young children for their intelligence promoted cheating.

A team of international researchers led by Li Zhou, a professor at Hangzhou Normal University in the Zhejiang Province in east China, conducted an experiment with 300 preschool children in eastern China. Half of the children were 3 years old, and the other half were 5 years old.

Methodology

In the study, a researcher hid a playing card with a number ranging from 3 to 9 but excluding six behind a barrier, and the children had to guess whether the number on the card was greater or less than 6. The children were told they could win a prize if they were right at least three times.

The experiment started with a trial run in which all of the children were told they had guessed correctly whether or not they did. Then they were randomly selected for three different conditions. Children in what was termed the ability condition were told, "You are so smart." Those in what was termed the performance condition were told, "You did very well this time," and the children in the baseline group didn't receive any praise.

The real game began after the practice run and was rigged so that all of the children were successful on the first two trials and failed on the next three. The children didn't receive any praise during these rounds.

Before the pivotal last trial, the researcher left the room for a minute after having the children promise not to peek at the card.

Results and Study Implications

Sixty percent of the children who had been told they were smart peeked, while 41 percent of the children who had been praised for their performance did and 40 percent of those who had not been praised at all looked at the card.

One of the study's co-authors, Gail Heyman, a University of California San Diego psychology professor, said the results were surprising.

"The thing that surprised me the most was that we had effects in 3-year-olds that they were sensitive to the idea that being told they were smart made them cheat more and that being told that they did well on something did not make them cheat more," said Heyman. "I had no idea that they would be sensitive to such a subtle distinction."

So should teachers and parents stop praising children for being smart?

Heyman thinks so. She cites the growth mindset research by Carol Dweck, who was her graduate advisor, which found that praising a child for being smart can undermine their motivation to achieve. But she admits that getting away from telling children how smart they are isn't easy.

"We can train ourselves to focus on other things, and in turn get children to focus on things that are more adaptive for their motivation and help them better deal with the difficulties that inevitably come as they're learning harder and harder skills," said Heyman.


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