Intelligence: What's Praise Got to Do with It?

Intelligence: What's Praise Got to Do with It?

Intelligence: What's Praise Got to Do with It?

Here are some tips for facilitating children’s growth, engagement, and intellectual curiosity through praise.

Parents often think that intelligent kids learn quickly, with very few errors and little or no difficulty. Many parents feel that speed and ease are, in fact, proof of being smart. And, most parents praise their children for these attributes.

For example, they might say something like this:

Julie, you’re a math whiz. You never even make a mistake!

Sammy, you learn things SO fast! You’re a superstar!

These parents are proud of their children’s abilities. However, they may not realize that praising children for being smart can compromise their motivation and performance, and actually be detrimental to their learning. It’s important to stay attuned to children’s attitudes, work habits, creative initiatives, learning trajectories, and resilience.

Let’s consider two things: 1) the nature of intelligence, and 2) the nature of praise that parents may convey about their children’s intelligence.


Intelligence is not fixed at birth. It develops step by step over time with hard work and the right kinds of learning opportunities. It’s not predicated on speed or ease. Intelligence-building demands perseverance, inquiry, and a willingness to think in innovative ways, and to learn from setbacks. It involves patience, preparedness, and practice, as well as thoughtful attention to detail. In other words, intelligence accrues with effort.

Intelligence is far more vibrant and dynamic than most people might suspect. Research across such fields as educational psychology and neuroscience shows that there are many ways of being intelligent beyond traditional school-based academics. Indeed, each person has an individual profile of intelligences, including intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and behavioral.


How can parents foster children’s intelligence?

If parents think about intelligence as a process (rather than as an innate essence of some sort), it paves the way for celebrating kids’ accomplishments in a manner that goes beyond just “being proud.”

Here are three praise-related recommendations.

  • Pay attention to what your child is doing—and how they’re doing it. Hard work, not haste, is what leads to increasing competence. Express pride in and praise children’s creativity, and their motivation, focus, determination, and involvement in learning activities.
  • Watch your words. When parents use descriptors like “whiz” or “superstar” they’re suggesting an aura of brilliance, and aren’t really helping their child progress. Be specific. Praise steps and persistence, and then indicate practical strategies to empower kids to move forward and reach next-levels.
  • Reinforce children’s experiences and understandings. How? Encourage kids to think about their interests, learning options, and what they already know and can extend. They can consider how to infuse creativity into their activities, and how to stretch boundaries. Be reassuring, letting kids know that they’ll still receive praise in the form of positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support.


Here are suggestions for rephrasing the two praise examples at the outset of this article so they’re more facilitative of children’ growth:

Your math work is very precise, Julie. Why not try something a little harder? If you make a mistake that’s okay because then you’ll know what you need to work on. Believe in yourself!

Sammy, you learn quickly—which means you’ve got time to explore something else you might like to know about. Let’s brainstorm some creative ideas!

These comments are encouraging—and they solicit children’s agency—that is, their investment in learning and intelligence-building processes, including inviting children to think constructively or creatively about what they’re doing, and how to take next steps. Effective praise might also iwelcome kids’ questions about how to possibly extend their ideas.


As kids play, learn, and experience the fullness of life, praise their efforts as well as their accomplishments. This will enable them to develop a solid foundation for instruction and disciplined practice—which can lead to proficiency, self-confidence, and a life-long love of learning. And THAT would make any parent proud!


This piece is an updated version of one written by me and shared with local healthcare professionals. For more information on praising children, check out my article Praising Children in First Time Parent Magazine.


Joanne Foster, Ed.D. is a multiple award-winning author of eight books. Her most recent is Ignite Your Ideas: Creativity for Kids. To find out about her publications, presentations, and newsletter, and for resources on supporting children’s well-being, creativity, and learning, visit

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