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To Raise Smart and Successful Children, Focus on Developing a Work Ethic

In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring short stories, Harrison Bergeron, everyone is finally equal thanks to the efforts of the Handicapper General. However, one of the many lasting messages of the story is a derisive one. In the futuristic world of Harrison Bergeron, accomplishment is no longer the measure of stature. Instead, it is all about trying, of recognizing effort, regardless of result.

However, a recent summary of three decades of research reveals that when it comes to raising smart children, developing their work ethic is in fact the most critical component. Whether it is success in school or in life, research indicates that innate intelligence and ability are simply not as important as a person’s level of effort.

Secrets to Raising Smart Children
In “The Secrets to Raising Smart Children,” Carol S. Dweck summarizes more than 30 years of research into what makes children successful. Surprisingly, one of the first things she notes contradicts a common parental practice today.

StenboughThe mistake? Too many parents tell their kids that they are smart.

Zweck insists that praising children’s innate abilities serves only to reinforce an overemphasis on intellect and talent. According to Zweck, such a viewpoint “leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.” The researcher refers to this group as having a “fixed mind-set.”

Instead of praising raw ability, the focus with children should be on a “growth mind-set.” According to Zweck, developing such a viewpoint is critical to helping youngsters react well to setbacks. Children with a “growth mind-set” simply do not experience the crippling feeling of helplessness that can come with perceived failure.

View of Intelligence
Critics may deem Zweck as being too simplistic in her differentiation, but she continues on with the basic division. Those with the ‘fixed mind-set” are prone to feelings of helplessness more often than not.

This group tends to “believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that.” She notes that “mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change.”

Because of that mentality, the “fixed mind-set” group tends to avoid challenges. At times, this group tended to regard having to work hard to accomplish a task as a sign that one simply did not have the innate ability to do the task.

On the other hand, those who develop a “mastery-orientation” to learning “think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work.” Mastery-oriented children “want to learn above all else.”

Maze WalkerZweck explains the actions of those with the growth mind-set this way: “Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn.”

Where the biggest impact occurs is at the point when school work becomes more challenging. As students progressed through middle school and into the challenge of high school, those with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence when tasks became more challenging.

Need to Praise the Proper Things
Zweck’s research indicates that “intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort.” The researcher noted that those children congratulated for their intelligence actually tended to shy away from challenging assignments seeking easy ones instead.

On the flip side, those kids applauded for their efforts sought greater challenges noting that in such situations they would learn even more. Those students praised for their efforts remained confident when faced with the harder questions, even when such questions were beyond their ability.

In fact, one of the more interesting findings was the performance of the two groups of students directly after having been given an extremely challenging task. Those praised for intelligence tended to perform poorly even when easy tasks followed a hard task that had been beyond their ability.

Brandon Dill PhotoThose with the growth mindset did not demonstrate feelings of helplessness and their performance on easier tasks improved markedly even after experiencing failure with the more challenging task.

Advice for Parents
At no time in the piece do we hear one of the more important descriptors of growth mind-set children. Clearly what Zweck is describing is a sense of resilience.

The ability to bounce back from setbacks is a discerning trait for children and adults that succeed even when great challenges come their way. It appears to be a learned trait and youth sports offer a great chance for adults to help children foster a greater sense of resiliency. In the athletic arena, youth coaches help children immensely when they focus on effort instead of results.

Zweck notes that children “differ in intelligence, talent and ability.” Where parents come in is to foster the work habits and sense of effort that maximize that innate ability.

Of particular importance is to ensure that our youngsters understand that “great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift.”

Zweck notes that informing children of the accomplishments of the likes of Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne should be utilized with children. These individuals “were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort.”

Ultimately, hard work and discipline contribute more to school success than IQ or innate ability. Such a statement is true for success in life as well.

If parents focus on praise in the correct arena, they can go a long way towards “raising smart kids.”


1 JP { 09.15.08 at 8:56 am }

I think your last sentence says it all. Praise is important, but only if used correctly. It wouldn’t be good to have two extremes: constant praise and constant put-downs. Failing is such an important activity, but it’s also important to take risks in order to fail. If my parents constantly put me down, then I’d probably take less risks to make sure I can achieve something. However, it may not result in significant improvement. I feel like there’s a lot more to this topic that a simple comment can’t address (re: praise, risk, encouragement, etc).

I think parents really have a juggling act and as your post says, praise needs to be done in appropriate situations.

2 Jeremy { 09.17.08 at 8:55 am }

Although I have not been teaching for that long I see the value in Dweck’s findings.
My experience has shown me that generally students would prefer to do a simple worksheet over a project that involves critical thinking even though the later is seen as more exciting and engaging.
Why is this? Because of continuous praise based on intelligence or other biological factors, given to students so that they feel good about themselves, we have fostered a generation of students with a “fixed mind-set.” This is very troubling as a teacher because our world does not have a “fixed mind set” but instead our world requires individuals who embrace challenges and change and whom achieve through effort not by just showing up.
Yet, as with everything, I believe there needs to be a balance since children also require a sense of self worth and a reasonable level of self-esteem in order to have the confidence to take on a challenge. When “you have nice printing,” is paired with, “it is nice to see you working hard to print so that your letters touch the top and bottom line” students get the benefit of both.

3 azdrew { 09.30.08 at 7:59 am }

“The mistake? Too many parents tell their kids that they are smart. ” – I almost fell off my chair when I read this. Not in disbelief, but total agreement. I have always been opposed to overly praising a child. I do believe children need support and reasonable praise but telling them they are intelligent will hurt them in many ways. My sonat 9 years of age had begun dealing with a divorced mother and father if that was not enough. His mother cooperated with the school he attended in letting him get out of assignments because he was “so smart”. Rather than having to participate with the entire class he was allowed to go attend special duties to help teachers and other students. I strongly believe this contributed to him feeling he didn’t have to do certain things that were asked of him later in his educational career. It hurt him in college and it hurt him in being humble enough to accept what he deemed as inferior jobs to support him through college. The elementary school systems need to demand the same from all students equally.

4 Becoming Succesful Requires Persistence - For All the Wrong Reasons - { 10.12.08 at 9:11 pm }

[…] a while back we relayed the latest research of Carol S. Dweck who has taken a lengthy look at raising successful children. […]

5 Mark { 10.14.08 at 1:38 pm }

Loved the article! This is something I have been trying to instill in my students for some time. My honors stduents, in particular, have fought me long and hard on this idea.

I have been out of the classroom this year to work for the Dept. of Education in my state, and I actually received an e-mail from a past student which made the fight worthwhile. Essentially, she stated that she missed getting B’s in class because everything she was doing now was overly-simplified. Talk about bringing a tear to my eye!

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