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Forget about having a 'smart' kid and focus on teaching them hard work

Upon graduating from Dartmouth College with a BA in History, Rob became a high school history teacher in Paterson, NJ. He then joined the Huntington Learning Center where he ran the largest of the approximately 270 centers, as well as a...

Why teaching kids about hard work — rather than praising their intelligence — is a smart parenting move

We’ve all heard having high expectations for our kids is important.

When I was a high school history teacher, our principal shared a story about a teacher whose incoming class had a reputation for being both extremely rowdy and academically challenged. Before the year started — and with much trepidation — the teacher opened the student files to begin to get a handle on the stories of this difficult bunch only to learn that their IQs were all over the genius level of 130.

After recovering from her shock, she determined to help them realize their potential, and she did just that. They made incredible gains that year and earned top marks in the city. It was at the end of the year that she made a shocking discovery.

What she’d thought were their IQ scores were actually their locker numbers.

Holding high expectations for our kids and encouraging hard work and dedication — similar to the teacher and her students with the fortuitous locker numbers — helps them to succeed not only academically, but in life as well. Parents should instill a growth mindset in their kids. This is a mindset that promotes the belief that hard work, persistence and dedication — not simply intelligence — can help an individual develop their basic abilities. This is a mindset that pushes and challenges kids to keep growing, keep learning and to never give up when challenges are difficult. It is also a mindset that gives learners permission to fail, reset and thrive.

Sometimes parents fall into the trap of overpraising their children in an attempt to encourage them. For example, if a parent were to say, “Great job, you’re so smart,” upon seeing his child succeed at a math problem, the child could get the wrong impression about their academic success and internalize the pressure to be smart all the time.

By focusing only on intelligence, kids can get stuck on it and become afraid to try new things and fail. Instead, parents should praise hard work and process and say, “Great job persisting and working through that math problem. Your hard work and dedication are impressive.”

There is, however, significant nuance to how to praise hard work. If a student isn’t understanding the math problem and is sitting at their desk struggling with no clear idea of what to do, no amount of hard work is going to help. Praising the work can be counterproductive — the student could internalize the idea that all hard work is pain — without the gain.

Instead, parents should help the student understand that they need to apply a different strategy. So, if your sixth grader is struggling with how to solve a word problem about the percent of students that have birthdays in the first half of the year, helping them think through percentages by basing it on how much of the pizza everyone in the family ate on movie night can help make the birthday question a bit more real and fun.

So, how can parents instill a growth mindset in their child? Resources like the Mindset Kit provide great tools and advice for parents on just that. A few tips:

  • Be self-aware: As we know, kids look to and often imitate their parents’ behaviors and habits. It is key that parents be mindful of their own mindset along with the actions and messages they send to their kids. Strive for growth, not perfection.

  • Focus on the process: As opposed to praising innate abilities, parents should focus on the process, effective strategies and effort that led to their child’s success.

  • Realize that failure isn’t a bad thing: Parents shouldn’t be afraid to talk about failure with their kids in a positive way. This attitude not only encourages kids to take risks, think outside of the box and take on new challenges, but it also highlights that failure is a natural part of the learning process.

As parents work with their child to instill a growth mindset, it is important they keep the lines of communication open. Be honest and acknowledge that there may be frustrations along the way. It is important for parents to level-set with their kids by telling them not be afraid of hard work, frustration and even failure, as it is all a part of learning. Finally, it’s never too late to shift to a growth mindset, or help instill one in your kids!

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