Hard Work vs. Intelligence

While I was in graduate school we read a study about the impacts of encouragement and the words we use with children. We also had the opportunity to watch some videos from the original case study. What they found was that children tend to do much better on tests and in problem-solving situations when they are praised for hard work rather than being praised for being smart.

As a parent, I started to examine how I spoke to my son and what type of encouragement and praise I was giving him. I started to realize that, out of habit, I was almost always praising him for being smart. After being a teacher for several years, as well as observing friends and family members with their children, I’ve found that MANY parents make this same mistake.


I was recently talking to a friend about her daughter who is struggling in school. During this conversation, she stressed that her daughter could not do certain things and that she couldn’t sit still long enough to practice at home.

First, I reminded her that 5 and 6 year old bodies are not meant to sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time. Yet, the education system forces teachers into making these tiny, restless bodies sit for hours at a time. No wonder our kids come home from school either completely exhausted, or totally wired/crazy.

I asked her to try only working with her daughter for as long as her daughter could focus, then giving her a small reward for hard work. I have no idea if this will actually work, and I know from experience that the concepts and strategies we are asking of students these days is becoming beyond ridiculous in the scope of what they are actually able to perform. But, my hope is that trying this out will help her to have more patience with her daughter, and will help her daughter learn that if she works hard, she can accomplish anything.

Since I learned about this study, I do my very best to praise my son for his hard work instead of his intelligence. Because, while I of course think he’s the smartest kid on earth (duh!), that won’t help him when it comes to putting his mind to solving a difficult problem and working through it until it is solved.

If I kept praising my son for his intelligence, what would happen if he started having difficulty solving a problem? Based on this study, he most likely would feel bad about himself and just give up (I’m not saying that is always necessarily true, but this study really backed this up with a lot of evidence).

Think about it this way. If you were always told that you were the best basketball player ever, that you had incredible natural talent. Then, as you got older, basketball started getting more difficult and other players around you worked harder on skills in which they were weak. Would you be able to recognize your areas of weakness and work to improve them? Would you get a little cocky and think that your natural talent outweighed other players’ hard work? Maybe. Maybe not.

But, if you were always praised for working hard, practicing more than you had to, working on skills in which you were weak, then as the game got harder, as the other players improved, then so would you! Just look at Stephen Curry!! There have been numerous articles and news stories focusing on his insane work ethic and how hard he worked to get to where he is.

As with everything, there can be extremes and there are always outliers. Not every person responds to praise in the same way, and everyone prefers a different type of praise. But I want parents to be aware of the potential of limiting your child to intelligence. I would much rather my son work hard at everything he does, then have one thing come naturally to him.

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