How To Talk to Kids (Leave the “Smart” & “Pretty” Compliments At Home)

Almost every Sunday I fall into a trap. I see a toddler boy decked out in a collared shirt and little bow-tie, or a little girl in layers of pink tulle and before I can even catch myself, I exclaim:”Oh my goodness–you’re so cute!” But why is this a trap, you ask? Parents put a lot of effort into getting their little ones all decked out, and a compliment can never be out of place, can it?

A couple of years ago, I read an article on Huffington Post that was brought to my attention again recently. It was entitled How to Talk to Little Girls. The author recounts an experience of being at a dinner party and her meaningful interaction with a young girl that started with “Maya, very nice to meet you. Hey, what are you reading?” rather than what she’d initially wanted to squeal: “Maya, you’re so cute! Look at you! Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”


IMG_6132-minHow we talk to children, whether boys or girls, and how we interact with them each time in a small way molds the way they view themselves. It may subconsciously tell them that the only way to get noticed is by the way they look. Or it could tell them that you value their mind, their opinion, and the way they see the world. It’s a lot of responsibility, and can seem overwhelming. But when we focus on substance, we convey our priorities and what we value.

But should we just switch our knee-jerk response to one closely resembling “Oh you’re so smart!”? Research shows that this can be equally dangerous. At Stanford, there are a couple of buzz words we hear all the time. One of them is “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset”. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence and talent is finite. You were born with a certain amount and there is nothing you can to do change it. You’re either smart or dumb. But then there’s a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that you can change, you can grow, and hard work pays off. And the beautiful thing is, you aren’t born with one mindset, and you can make progress from a fixed to a growth mindset. (Or maybe that’s just my growth mindset talking!) Imagine two scenarios:

In the first scenario, your child breezes through early elementary. It’s easy, and every day you tell them how smart they are, and how special they are. They’re feeling great about themselves. But then, they hit long division. And it doesn’t click for them. They feel dumb.

Now imagine if instead of telling them that they’re smart every single day, you praised their hard work. Their ability to prioritize. Their willingness to diligently do their homework. Now when they hit that long division, subconsciously, they’ll know that what they need to succeed is more hard work. More prioritization. More diligence.


Now I’m not saying you should never tell kids that they’re smart or beautiful. Because chances are, they probably are both of those things. But if you neglect to also talk about how what really makes them successful is their work ethic, their willingness to accept a challenge, their curiosity, and their willingness to ask questions, ultimately you’re doing them a disservice and setting them up for failure. Take opportunities to point out these qualities in the world around them. Point to book characters who overcome hard things through creativity and determination. Older siblings. Aunts and uncles. Be invested in their learning, and about that process of learning, not just the end result.

Children have amazing little brains that are soaking up the world around them like sponges. So let them soak in the love and the life lessons that will make them even more likely to succeed.

Looking for a couple of conversation starters for the little people in your life?

  • Tell me about one of your favorite things to do.
  • What are you reading? Do you have a favorite book?
  • What was the best thing you learned today?

Have your own favorite kid conversation starters? Share them here!

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  • Reply
    Sadie Cutler
    July 28, 2016 at 3:31 am

    Interesting thanks! There was a study I heard about recently where they took two test groups gave them the same math problems and told one group they were smart and the other that they worked hard, and as the problems became more difficult the “smart” group stopped trying and the hard workers kept working hard. Hard work pays off, I learned that from my big sister :)

    • Reply
      July 28, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      I’ve heard of that study too–super neat! Thanks for sharing Sadie! :)

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