What's the S-word?
Whatever smutty possibilities came into your mind, it's none of those. In fact it's a word parents have long lavished on kids to encourage them -- nothing more sinister sounding than the word 'smart.'
What could possibility be wrong with calling your obviously brilliant little one smart? Since Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck's pioneering work on growth vs. fixed mindsets, child development experts have been warning that telling kids they're smart causes them to fear doing anything that might disprove this praise. That leads them to avoid pushing themselves and making mistakes, just the sort of striving that drives learning.
But apparently there's yet another reason to ban the S-word from your home. Not only will it make kids shy away from challenges, but according to new research published in Psychological Science, it might also make them prone to cheating as well.
Why "smart" kids cheat more
This conclusion comes from a team of American, Canadian, and Chinese researchers who asked groups of preschoolers to play a simple guessing game. Some of the kids, when they answered correctly were told 'You're doing great!', others were told 'You're so smart!' The children then all continued to play the game while being monitored on a hidden camera.
You'd think that such a small difference in the wording of praise wouldn't have much of an effect on the kids, but it did. The children who were told they were smart were significantly more likely to cheat than those who were told they were doing well.
Why does such a small shift matter? For much the same reasons Dweck and other researchers have cited. Praising intelligence makes kids anxious to not do anything that would undermine that label, and if they have to be a little dishonest to continue being called smart then so be it.
"Praise is more complex than it seems," study co-author Kang Lee commented. You can say that again. Well meaning parents will no doubt be shocked to learn that what they intend as encouragement of effort and ability, can end up working as an encouragement to cheat instead.
To avoid this unintended outcome, make sure you switch to praising for effort and growth rather than inborn ability. Here's a helpful explainer from Dweck herself on how to do that for the maximum positive impact on your child's mindset.