Most parents, caregivers and educators don’t think twice about praising kids for being smart. But new research suggests that sort of praise makes children more likely to cheat.

Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies and Education (OISE), and his international research colleagues have published two studies that found “incorrectly” used praise can seriously backfire.

“Praise is one of the most commonly used forms of reward,” says a study published this week in the journal Psychological Science. “However, praising children for being smart carries unintended consequences: It can undermine their achievement motivation in a way that praising their effort or performance does not.”

The study found that preschoolers in China who were praised for being “so smart” were more likely to cheat in a guessing game involving cards than children who were praised for doing “very well” or not praised at all.

In another study co-authored by Lee and published last month, Chinese preschoolers who were told they had a reputation for being smart were also more willing to cheat in tests and games.

Lee, who has been studying how and why children lie for the past 20 years, said there are obviously “a lot of benefits” to praising children, but the way that praise is expressed can have negative results.

When children are told that they are smart or brilliant, they can end up feeling pressured to excel at all times and become afraid of failing and disappointing their parents or teachers, Lee told in a telephone interview.

When kids are afraid of failure, they tend to cheat in order to meet the perceived high expectations, he said.

Lee said his research over the years has shown that kids learn how to be dishonest almost as soon as they learn language.

“We were surprised that three-year-olds were able to do it,” he said of the cheating observed in his more recent studies.

Lee said parents should try to avoid using labels such as “smart” when praising their kids, and instead compliment them on their efforts and specific actions.

“’You’re doing great,’ ‘You are performing well’ – anything that describes action is better,” he said.

“Of course, it’s so much easier to say: ‘You are smart.’”

Lee said early childhood educators in Canada are aware of the pitfalls of different types of praise and strive to highlight kids’ efforts.

But if you catch your child being dishonest, don’t despair – learning how to lie could actually be seen asa good thing, Lee said.  “It’s a milestone in development.”

Lee’s past research has linked a child’s ability to convincingly tell a lie to advances in cognitive and social development.