“Stupid is as stupid does” only tells half the story of how intelligence is expressed in the world. Certainly no one will argue that even the highest IQs out there have made some colossal mistakes.
One of the most damaging mindsets a child can have is that they are “smart”. I know that this sounds counter intuitive but the science on this is so overwhelmingly strong that it is impossible to ignore and changes everything about how we encourage our children.
First some technical terms to get us on the same page. This comes from Carol Dweck's work on the impact of mindset on performance (1).
Children (and adults) tend to have either an “entity theory” or a “learning theory” of being intelligent.
An Entity Theory of intelligence means that you think intelligence resides in you and you either have it or you don’t have it when you need it. Entity theory means that when you encounter something you can do, you are “smart”. When you can’t do something you must be “dumb”.
An Incremental Theory of intelligence means that you earn your intelligence by learning over time with effort and work. In this case being smart is something that you obtain through learning.
Here is just one example of an experiment that has been reproduced a number of times by different groups with the same results.
A group of children were noted as believing in either “entity” or “incremental” theory.
They were then given a series of simple math problems that they all solved easily.
Next they were given some very hard problems that were to difficult to solve. Learning theory children were challenged and entity theory children were dismayed and discouraged.
No one in the group got these harder problems correct, but some children had comments like “I’m really going to have to try hard now” while others said “I’m not smart enough for this”.
The next phase gets really interesting. The children were again given easy problems to solve and the incremental theory children aced the test while the entity theory children were discouraged and struggled.
Their self confidence was clearly damaged. They were "brittle".
The results had no relationship to measured intelligence. This is a critical point.
This adaptability is separate from objective measures of intelligence like IQ.
Anecdotally this makes sense in our day to day experiences. Have you ever *really* cared about someone’s IQ? Ever asked someone for their IQ prior to working with them? When faced with the choice of a neurosurgeon that has 100 successful surgeries but graduated last in his class or one with no experience that graduated at the top of his class, who are you going to choose?
The truth is that we don’t really care about IQ or “smartness”. We care about someone being able to get work accomplished to our standard. We care about SKILL and INTEGRITY.
We want to work with people that will get the job done even with it is tough.
The system is hell bent on measuring and labeling all types of intelligence
Neither praise nor punishment honors each individual child’s struggle and challenges to learn and grow.
Modern teaching techniques and schools are centered around praise and punishment. Standardized tests, star charts, grades, and classroom monitoring software are giving the child direct praise and labels for being academically, emotionally, or socially intelligent. These same systems give social punishment and negative labels for being stupid.
The irony is that these systems do as much damage to the “good students” as the bad ones. It takes that 20% of kids that breeze through academics and sets them up for a life of discouragement when they face adult situations that require a lot of work.
This is a silent killer of our economy.
At my last reunion I was shocked at how so many of the A students haven't given their gifts to the world. When I talk to them, they all envy my entrepreneurship and say something just like the kids in the study. “I could never do that!”
Imaging a world where every child thought that they could do it!
Smart is as smart does.
Our Job as a parent is to create a safe nurturing environment that develops our children into amazing adults that love to learn. Here are four ways you can model, encourage and teach an incremental theory of intelligence to your children.
1.Talk to your child about the difference between incremental theory and entity theory.
This may be the most effective way to support your child in making the transition to an incremental theory of intelligence. I’ve read books to my boys on the subject. I talk to them about it at dinner and whenever someone is struggling to learn something. I point it out in them when I see it and we talk about how they learned something new.
When we see someone perform that is really good, we get curious about the work they put in to become awesome.
Whenever my children show progress I ask them how they got there. We’ve made honoring hard work, effort and progress a part of our daily conversations.
2. Be a model of incremental learning and honor the learning challenges in your life.
Yep, time to look at your theory of intelligence and where you might think you are not smart enough. Talk to your child about the current challenges you have to learn something new and how you are working hard to overcome those challenges and learning more every day.
Demonstrate and celebrate with your children the results of your hard work and evidence of your learning.
Catch yourself when you might be giving excuses for not taking on a new learning task. For me those sometimes sounds like an adult child is talking. I’ll hear myself say things like:
These phrases are sometimes a coverup for an entity theory of intelligence in me. Now when I hear them come out of my mouth I typically schedule time to take on the challenge instead. This is especially important when I can take on new activities with my two sons. Examples of this are surfing, guitar, and acting in the play!
3. Cut out *all* objective praise and replace with encouragement and honoring the journey.
The difference between praise and encouragement is the focus of your intention and the focus of your words. Praise shows up when you are telling your child what a great, smart, good, etc person he is. Praise requires your approval and assessment to work. Praise does not consider how your child feels or their opinion. Praise passes aside the journey to get to the accomplishment. Praise is all about the parent.
Encouragement focuses on the child’s assessment of what she did to produce the outcome. You are encouraging her to notice the hard work and skill and to honor what it took.
This is easier said than done.
Here is good rule of thumb that I learned from Susie Walton in her Joy of Parenting Course. If you wouldn’t say it to an adult friend, then don’t say it to your child.
It takes a lot of practice noticing and being conscious of your intentions when acknowledging something your child has done. Most parents are praise junkies like I was and it took a lot of careful consideration before I opened my mouth and years of practice for encouragement to become a habit and the praise and rewards to go away.
4. Build a community that encourages incremental learning.
Talk to your extended family and friends about this subject (share this article with them!) This is interesting science and is something that everyone can objectively understand and easily change their behavior to remove praise and rewards and become more encouraging.
As a parent you have more power than you think to influence your current school system. Talk to your child’s teachers and school administrators about how we can all be more encouraging and inspire a learning theory in the students.
There are charter and private schools that teach without stars and grades that allow for learning in different modalities and give children a say in how they demonstrate their learning. If you live in San Diego check out Village Gate Academy Montessori School.
The bottom line!
As parents we have a lot of influence over the way our children understands and values intelligence. Cultivating an incremental theory of intelligence will engender a lifelong love of learning and a willingness to work hard to learn even when it is tough.
There is no better way to prepare our children for succeeding in rapidly changing world and a workforce that values knowledge and skill over everything else.
(1) To read more about the impact of mindset check out this article by Carol Dwek.
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