Why I Don’t Tell Children They’re Smart

A photo by Ben White. unsplash.com/photos/4K2lIP0zc_k


Imagine a child named Danny.

Danny is told that he’s smart. He’s told that he does a good job, no matter how good a job he did.  Even when he doesn’t believe himself that he did a good job.

Danny makes a painting.

“Good job, you’re so smart!”

Danny finishes the puzzle.

“Wow, you’re smart!”

Danny plays at the piano.

“Try it again this time more slowly.”

Danny didn’t hear how smart he is. He plays it more slowly.

“Did you notice anything about how that sounded?”

Until then, most other people just told him how good it was. He’s not used to being critical of his own work and judging it for himself.

He leaves the piano.  He doesn’t like it.  He’s not smart when it comes to the piano.

“But Danny, you are a child. You will grow. Whatever you do now, keep at it and you will get better.”

Danny prefers to hear how smart he is instead.


The idea that children can’t be praised enough, persists even when we know that this practice isn’t helpful for a child.  Consider that praise is tantamount to placing judgment on the child. Albeit positive judgment.

I’m reminded of what a pedagogista in Reggio Emilia once said, “Why would we label a child when they are in the process of becoming?”

Shouldn’t we direct the child’s attention to that?

And why would a child want to persist or practice to get better when they hear how smart or how good they are?  They are already smart and good.  No need to practice.

Then there’s this matter of a brain chemical called dopamine.  When a child is praised, dopamine gets released in the brain.  It sends rush of sensation. It feels good.  Dopamine is sometimes called the pleasure chemical.  Dopamine is sometimes called the addiction chemical. You can get addicted to praise.

And even if a child shows promising initial talent or an inclination in a given skill or subject-area.  Are they done progressing? Have they mastered all there is to master?

We can do better.  In any effort laid forth by the child, there is growth. There is learning. There is progress.

Focus on the effort.

Ask questions.

Leave judgement out of your comments. Ask them to judge it for themselves.

Strive to promote the joy of the process rather than the quality of the product.

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2 Responses

  1. Kirsten Engberg says:

    I never quite know what to say when kids show me their art. “That’s nice” or “I like it” are a couple of the ways that I usually respond. I should probably put more meaning into my answers.

    • David Oh says:

      As nice people who work with young children, we want to be nice, and saying it’s nice is being nice! But we are also educators, and instead of teaching children to be complacent, we want children to think critically. So I’d suggest responding with genuine interest, curiosity, and questions about their work. They’ll appreciate the attention, which is actually more than we give when we just give a compliment, and they’ll walk away with new ideas!

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