Jumping into the Deep End: Moving from Surface Structure to Deep Structure
July 29, 2011
Managing Technology Distractions
November 22, 2011

Why Doesn’t My Smart Child Try Harder?

“Bright.” “Gifted.” “Quick learner.” “Exceptional.” “Smart.” What parents wouldn’t want to hear these words about their child? When your child is described this way, the elementary years cruise by easily. In the blink of an eye, picture books are replaced with chapter books, grades are strong, and there’s plenty of time for life outside of school.

Show us a child who was like this in elementary school and we’ll show you a student who has likely become a “specialist” by junior high. These students do well on tests and bring home great grades, but not everything is rosy: they have begun to shy away from certain subjects. You’ll hear things like “I’m not good at math,” or “I don’t really like science,” or “Mr. Davis just doesn’t like me.”

For parents this is beyond puzzling. You may find yourself wondering, how did my bright, exceptional kid just decide that she couldn’t learn geometry or chemistry? You may even toy with the idea that your child really isn’t a “math person” and should instead focus on her amazing strengths in writing.

The Consequences of “Smart”

With the best intentions, parents, teachers, and loved ones are quick to give children positive labels. But these labels produce unexpected consequences. Carol Dweck, a researcher in cognitive science, has shown that we may damage our children’s motivation towards schoolwork by sticking them with positive labels. Her book, Mindset, is one that we strongly recommend.

In Mindset, Dweck explains that when we label children as “smart” or “exceptional” early on, these same children will later feel that they’re “just bad at math” or “klutzy at sports.” These children place themselves into categories: Smart vs. Not Smart. Talented vs. Hopeless.

They learn that being smart means being able to do things without effort. They actually become afraid of taking on challenges and exerting effort for fear that they will no longer look smart. Over time, these children focus more on areas where they feel “talented,” and shy away from areas where they feel that they do not have an natural gift. Even worse, these kids start to see mistakes as something to hide rather than an opportunity to learn: they come to see learning as an outcome, not a process.

What to do about it

1) Read Mindset*. This book is worth it. You’ll be amazed at how much the phenomenon of labeling affects all of us on a daily basis – not just in school but also at work, in sports, and even in relationships.

2) Praise your child for effort. When your son hits a home run, rather than calling him a “natural” at baseball, try, “Wow, your practice is really paying off!” When your daughter brings home a report card full of A’s, say, “I’m so impressed with the effort you’ve been putting into your schoolwork!” rather than praising her for being “smart.” Instead of praising for things that come easily and quickly, focus on your child’s hard work and perseverance towards a goal.

3) Mindset tutoring. You can help your child move from a “fixed” mindset to a “growth” mindset with a tutor! Nurturing Wisdom offers a Mindset tutoring program which can be integrated into academic tutoring or done on its own.  We’ll teach students to understand the difference between a “fixed” mindset (you’re either smart or you’re not smart) and a “growth” mindset (if I work hard, I’ll improve). We’ll help students recognize their own mindsets, and help them set goals to improve their mindset.

*The first chapter of Mindset can be read for free here on Amazon, if you want to get a sense of what it’s like.