When your child says "I'm dumb"


A few years back, my first-grader stepped off the school bus in tears. The words he squeaked out between sobs cut me to the soul. He said, “My teacher hates my reading ‘cause I’m stupid.” It was the start of the school year, and he had been placed in remedial reading—a group of five students, pulled from the classroom for specialized instruction with a reading specialist. When I asked around, it seemed my son was the only student struggling with self-image over the placement. So why do certain children fall apart when faced with negative evaluation while others seem to roll with the punches?

Fixed Mindsets Have Something to Prove

Due to the interaction of genetics and environment, some children react with more hopelessness than others, and Stanford psychology professor, Carol Dweck suggests mindsets may be at fault. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she writes “People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just given…and nothing can change that.” These thinkers worry excessively about their inadequacy and believe intelligence, athletic ability, and talent are fixed traits rather than qualities which can be developed.

Dweck says kids with fixed mindsets are compelled to prove themselves over and over because of a strong need to confirm that they are smart, athletic, or talented in every situation. Since academic success at school is measured primarily with pass/fail, some children may be reinforced to think in narrow terms and constantly ask themselves, “Am I a winner or a loser? Will I succeed or fail?”

How to Praise

Believe it or not, Dweck says praise, more than criticism contributes to fixed mindsets in children. For example, if you repeatedly praise your daughter for being smart, she may grow to expect that school work will come easy. If she encounters failure in math or reading, the failure will feel like proof she is not smart as you characterized her. She recommends that when your child brings home an excellent grade you avoid making comments such as “Man, you are smart!” Instead, you could reference her effort and the pay off. If your child bombs a test or comes home with a disappointing report card and says “I’m dumb,” it is important that you explain how tests and report cards are not indicators of intelligence. Children need to understand that hard work and extra help can lead to greater success.

Growth Mindsets Lead to Personal Growth

“Growth mindset” is the alternative to believing there is nothing you can do with the cards you have been dealt. With this mentality “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development.” Such thinkers recognize people can grow and succeed through experience, training, and personal effort. Dweck notes that when kids think the qualities they desire are attainable their passion is sparked for learning. If your child does not have a growth mindset and struggles with school, their self-image could be at risk. Since fixed mindsets focus on judging (“This means I’m dumb,” “This means I’m a bad kid”), a shift needs to occur. A child’s inner voice could ask instead, “What can I learn from this?” or “How can I improve?” Dweck says developing this mindset “allows people to thrive during the most challenging times of their lives.”

Four Ways to Help Kids Develop a Healthier Mindset

*Help them heighten their sensitivity to negative self-talk. When kids grow more aware of what their fixed mindset is telling them (“Face it—you’ve got no talent!”), they will be in a better position to do something to change that internal monologue. Talk to them about the ways their self-judgments hold them back.
*Explain there are other ways to evaluate themselves. In the face of failure, there is always more than one response available. If they bomb a math test after studying hard, “You’re a horrible math student” is only one potential reaction.
*Teach them to talk back! They will love this one. Rather than allowing a fixed mindset to drag them down—they should talk back to the voice saying they are not good enough. Encourage them to embrace a growth mindset which, without judging, sees the possibilities and the opportunities that may come from the setback.
*Discuss how a new mindset may be put into practice. Dweck challenges us to embrace life’s trials and learn from our setbacks. She says, “Hear the criticism and act on it.” Action based on a healthier mindset will expand the opportunities available to our kids now and through adulthood.

Michele Ranard is a professional counselor, academic tutor, and freelance writer. She is happy to report her son made great progress and has learned invaluable life lessons as a result of his academic struggles. Visit her at