Motivation Article # 10: The Secret to Raising Smart Kids
A focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life
More than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on
intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and
unwilling to remedy their shortcomings. These children coast through early grades
under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as
smart of gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and
fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being smart. This belief
also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as
threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to
lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.
Praising children’s innate abilities reinforces this mind set. Studies show that teaching
people to have a “growth mind-set” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on
intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.
The Opportunity of Defeat
Animal experiments by Seligman, Maier and Solomon have shown that after repeated
failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond control. After
such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even
when it can affect change—a state they called learned helplessness.
In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation
more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. A focus on effort can help
resolve helplessness and engender success. The most persistent students do not
ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems
to be solved.
Two Views of Intelligence: Helpless vs. Mastery-Oriented
The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain
amount and that’s that. This is a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence
because they attribute errors to lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change.
They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking
smart less so.
The mastery-oriented children think intelligence is malleable and can be developed
through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. Because slipups
stem from lack of effort, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are
energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with
such a growth mind-set are destined for greater academic success and are likely to
outperform their counterparts.
Students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school
than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing
that the more you laboured at something, the better you would become at it. They
understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments.
Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the
Students with a fixed mind-set were concerned about looking smart with little regard
for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at