‘You’re so smart!’ Here’s why saying this to children can make them worse at math

ATHENS, Ga. — Math can be a particularly hard subject for children to grasp, so it only makes sense that parents want to be as encouraging as possible when it comes to multiplication tables and long division. Interestingly, though, new research from the University of Georgia warns parents to choose their words carefully while discussing math with their children. The wrong approach can actually backfire in the long run.

Study authors explain that encouraging children with responses related to their personal traits or innate abilities may end up hampering their math motivation and achievement over time. For example, it can actually be detrimental to tell a child, “You’re so smart!”

Scientists say parents should avoid person responses that connect their child’s math performances with their personal abilities or attributes like intelligence (“You’re so smart!” or “Math just isn’t your thing!”). Instead, it’s a better idea to go with process responses that focus on the child’s actions, such as effort or strategy (“You worked hard!” or “What might be useful next time you have a math test?”).

“Person-focused praise sounds good on its face, but ultimately, it might undermine students’ motivation if they run into challenges,” says study co-author Michael Barger, an assistant professor in the Mary Frances Early College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, in a press release. “Because if you run into challenges after being told you’re so smart, you might think, ‘Maybe they were wrong.’ We also know that people tend to think about math as something that some people can do and others can’t, and that language is pretty common, whether it’s among parents or teachers, even with young kids.”

Putting process responses to the test

Over 500 parents were surveyed for this project. Respondents were asked how they respond to their children’s math performances, beliefs, and goals. The math motivations and achievements of students, meanwhile, were assessed in two waves over the course of a year.

Researchers found that parents who believe math ability is changeable were much more likely to use process responses than person responses. On the other hand, parents who believe personal math ability is more unchangeable and that math failures can’t be constructive were more likely to go with person responses. It’s also worth noting that parents with high expectations for their children gave a combination of both types of responses.

Mother helping child study and do homework
Children who w(Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images)

Process responses highlighting strategy or effort weren’t actually related to subsequent achievement outcomes, researchers explain. That said, kids who were given more responses about their personal traits, especially in relation to failure, were more likely to actively avoid tough math problems, showed higher levels of math anxiety, and generally scored lower on a math achievement test.

“There are a couple possible reasons process messages aren’t necessarily improving math achievement,” Prof. Barger explains. “It could be that they’re just so frequent now that they just kind of wash over, and that doesn’t have as much of an impact. And it could also be that some of these messages don’t land correctly if they’re not authentic. However, with person responses, we saw clear links to anxiety and less preference for challenging math problems.”

‘Not necessarily any benefit to talking about whether people are math people’

In conclusion, study authors recommend that both parents and teachers do their best to avoid using person responses in reference to math.

“There’s not necessarily any benefit to talking about whether people are or are not math people because if you’re a student who starts struggling, you’re going to start thinking that maybe you’re not a math person,” Prof. Barger adds.

Additionally, researchers suggest parents take some time and reflect on their own beliefs and goals for their kids, and examine how those beliefs may be influencing how they interact with their children. Simply telling parents to stop talking about their kids’ math skills probably won’t be enough in many cases. But, convincing parents that math performance can be improved may make a big difference.

It’s natural for any parent to want to celebrate their child’s skills, but study authors say emphasizing math strategy or enjoyment of math is likely a much more effective way to enhance motivation. More specifically, that means using responses like “Why do you think that happened?” or “Did you have fun?” instead of responses like “You’re so smart” or “Math just isn’t your thing.”

“We should also be asking whether parents believe that math ability can change and if they view failure as an opportunity to learn, as this seems to be related to less person responses,” Prof. Barger concludes. “This is more effective than just giving a checklist of things to say.”

The study is published in Child Development.