Unintended Consequences of Praising the Wrong Things

My oldest daughter is a pretty sharp cookie.

As she grew, I praised her for her intelligence. “You are so smart!” would frequently leave my mouth when we were doing school together. School came easily for her.  However, as she grew older, this mindset began to bite us in the behind. She seemed to think that struggling or even failing at something difficult meant that she WASN’T smart and that she wasn’t capable. She didn’t understand that learning is sometimes difficult and you often have to push through difficulties to learn and grow. I’d unintentionally reinforced this mindset by praising her for her innate abilities rather than her character.

I also saw an unintentional effect of praising my oldest for her innate abilities. My younger daughter struggled in school. It just didn’t come very easily for her. She heard my praise of her older sister when school was easy and interpreted that as “If school isn’t easy for you, you must not be smart. I’m not very smart.” It took years to undo that damage.

I resolved to stop making this mistake. Words of praise that flow from my mouth now are focused more on working hard, being selfless, and pushing through problems.

People are smart about different things. Have you ever met someone who doesn’t have a lot of “book learning” but has a massive pile of common sense about life? When I need my car repaired, I don’t care whether the mechanic got As in school or barely got a high school diploma. I just want my car fixed. A mechanic, plumber, cook, or carpenter may or may not have done well in school, but I guarantee they are smart in many other ways.

In the grand scheme of things, school and book learning are such a small part of life.  While learning facts and figures is important, it isn’t everything.

Each person has difficulties in life, and they have to push through them. By praising my children for their innate abilities, I may be discouraging them from developing the character that they need to reach their full potential.

How often my words have unintended consequences! Even words that sound positive can be handicapping my children by focusing on the wrong things. Rather than focusing on intelligence, book learning, and “smartness” what I really need to focus on is my kids’ character. Character will serve them well wherever they go.

And having good character is the truest measure of success.



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