If your child gets a great score on his math test, you might be tempted to pay an innocent compliment: "You're so smart!"
The problem is, that just might be the worst thing you could say.
Educators and child psychologists alike are now associating the once-positive descriptor with a belief system that such a child can do no wrong. The Atlantic describes a growing movement aimed at retiring the word completely:
"The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: 'Oh good, I'm smart.' And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: 'Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I'm not smart after all.' And that's the worst. That's a risk to avoid, they learn. 'Smart' kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding."
In fact, those who are labeled as "smart" or "gifted" are often less likely than other children to challenge themselves. They make fewer mistakes, perhaps, but only because they stay in their comfort zone and stop growing and adapting to new challenges.
Which "Smart" Kids Are Most at Risk
Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, notes that this "fixed mindset" persists into adulthood and is most damaging to an important demographic of kids: high-achieving girls.
Why? "Because it's girls who are told by society that they probably won't be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female PhDs there are in those fields."
What You Should Say Instead of "You're Smart"
So what can you as parents do to encourage your children without stifling them?
Instead of saying a general statement like "you are smart," make your response specific to the situation. Instead, try: "You did a great job!" or "You worked really hard, and it paid off!"
And if "smart" is banned, calling someone "a math person" is on the watch list, too. Labeling someone as inherently "a science person" or "not a science person" is just as damaging because it doesn't afford the opportunity for growth and development.
Boaler even goes so far as to recommend parents show sympathy when a child gets a perfect score on a test, because they weren't given the chance to learn from their mistakes:
She explains: "When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory."