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When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, we quickly agreed on two things: a name, and that we would never call our kid “smart”.

Like many people, my husband and I grew up believing intelligence is a dichotomy: you’re either smart, or you aren’t. Same for athletics, musicianship, or artistic talent. These things were innate. However, what we were learning, both personally and professionally, was that it wasn’t our intelligence or talents that were fixed — but rather our mindset around them.

I was in the middle of reading Nurture Shock, which discusses the research of Dr. Carol Dweck and the “Inverse Power of Praise” in its first chapter. Essentially, lavishing praise on kids and calling them smart was not having the impact parents and teachers hoped it would have. Instead of feeling empowered and driven, it made kids afraid of failure.

My husband, then in his sixth year of teaching math, had seen firsthand the potential negative impact on educational success for certain students designated as “smart.” A number of my husband’s students that were labeled “gifted” opted to give up rather than challenge themselves and potentially fail when faced with new material that did not come easy to them.

If telling our kids they’re brilliant is not the answer, what is? We wanted our kids to live up to their potential, and bombarding a child in affirmations of their intelligence was our model for loving and encouraging parenting. We watched parents around us effusively shower their kids in praise. What was the harm?

What we were learning about was the difference between a “fixed mindset” (our intellect is fixed and unalterable) and a “growth mindset” (we can grow our intelligence through effort). The former, reinforced by praise about a child’s inherent intelligence, left kids with the belief that there was nothing more they could do when faced with academic challenges. The latter, affirmed by encouragement acknowledging a child’s effort, validated the reality that our brains are like muscles that can grow stronger with challenges and resulted in kids that believed in their ability to learn and grow and were more willing to challenge themselves academically.

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