I think my kids are incredibly clever. My boys are twenty-eight months old and they can count almost to twenty, recite the alphabet in order, name about twenty colors, around thirty animals, and just have excellent memory in general. We've started working on their full names and addresses. They remember, almost verbatim, sentences from books we haven't read in weeks. But I've never-- not once-- told either boy that he is smart (okay, so I've slipped once or twice, heh).

I'm not pushing them so hard to excel that I resist praising them. In fact, Adam and I decided before they were born that we weren't going to make a habit of displaying them-- I don't prompt them to say the alphabet for people and the only time I've recorded them counting, they had no idea I was recording. Even now they sing the alphabet to their toys and rarely to us directly.

But before I had kids, I read about this book, NurtureShock. I read some blog posts and articles about it and some summaries of the first chapter. And one of my favorite podcasters recently interviewed one of the co-authors, Ashley Merryman. It's the podcast Raising Playful Tots and you can find that specific podcast here.

Basically, the concept discussed in the first chapter of NutureShock is that we're harming our kids by constantly praising them and telling them how smart they are. There have been short-term studies that show that kids who are told they are smart begin to choose easier and easier projects and develop a crippling fear of failure. Kids who are told that they worked hard get excited about challenges and will start choosing more difficult projects and have a better attitude about their own effort or work.

I don't think that not telling my kids they're smart will mean they never struggle. On the contrary, I know they will struggle-- and I want to make sure I'm equipping them to handle that. I know from experience (mom: I love you. I know it was stuff everyone thought was good at the time) that hearing how smart I was constantly as a kid warped my expectations. I began to think that if I didn't understand something right away, I was a fraud. I spent a lot of childhood bouncing from one "hobby" to another trying to find something I'd immediately be "smart" at (I wanted a kind of "instant protegé" experience).

One of the studies mentioned in that chapter of NurtureShock is a study involving two groups of students (either third graders or middle schoolers- I can't remember) and math lessons. One group was given a thirty minute (that's all!) presentation on the brain and the other group was not. The presentation talked about the brain being a muscle-- the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Just from that thirty minute lesson, the first group did consistently better in the math lessons.

They've found that kids who are regularly told how "bright" or "smart" or "clever" they are tend to swing wildly between two reactions to challenge-- they avoid it because of a fear of failure or they are groundlessly optimistic about success (usually too much of the latter leads to a child eventually ending up with the first response). Kids who are told how hard they worked, how much effort they put into something, tend to seek out challenge and learn more.

I'm not saying you're a bad parent for calling your child smart. I would be doing the same if I hadn't read some of this book and heard these podcasts and read studies about it before having my own kids and while they're still little. I'm not even telling you that you should stop-- maybe your kid has a personality that copes with that particular kind of praise really well. But this is what our family is doing and why. If you have a child that you know is bright and recently seems to be avoiding challenge or collapsing under failure, take a step back and think about how you're praising them. Kids need praise and encouragement-- but I think we should be careful to praise them for real effort, so that praise stands out to them and makes them focus on what they can control about their learning environment.

You can't control smart, so a lot of kids end up hitting high school and being overwhelmed by a fear that they "lost" it-- that they peaked as a toddler and are now just "average" and that parents will be disappointed. That's a lot of weight for a teen. But muscles? Muscles are something you can work on.

What do you think? Aside from this, are there any other decisions you've made as a parent about being more intentional in how you speak to or interact with your kids?