Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.
--Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck
The most e-mailed article on New York Magazine's website today is called "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise." Every parent and teacher should read the whole thing (and everyone should take a look at the hilarious photo on the opening page), as well as anyone interested in psychology, or anyone who thinks that not keeping track of goals in kids' soccer games is total bullshit.
Basically, a growing body of research shows that telling a kid he's smart will result in anxiety, self-consciousness, and ultimately underperformance. The evidence indicates that if a kid believes that intelligence and ability are innate, she'll give up too easily on things that require effort. "I'm no good at [insert school subject or sport], so why bother trying?" Besides, hard work is for dumb people.
The research challenges the conventional wisdom that pumping up a kid's self-esteem ("You're special! You're smart! You're amazing!") will make him happier and higher-achieving. In fact, kids labeled "smart" have such a fear of looking stupid that it's easier for them to just cop out.
That doesn't mean you should never praise kids, but that praise should be sincere, specific and for effort, not for any natural ability. Besides, after about the age of 7, kids get really good at sniffing out patronizing praise:
“Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” [NYU professor of psychiatry Judith Brook] says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.
What's really exciting is that the ability to be persistent isn't just a matter of will, it's a matter of brain wiring. There's a circuit in the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex that switches on in the event of failure, telling the brain, "Don't give up." This circuit will lose its activity if rewards are constant and assured, i.e., through overpraising.
BUT--and this is the exciting part--it can also be reactivated. I use myself as a case in point.
I was told I was Really Smart from age 3. I excelled in elementary school because classes focused on skills with short-term results and rewards (adding fractions, spelling words), along with rote memorization of facts. Easy stuff that made me feel good.
Middle school was a little harder because there were "projects." Long-term endeavors requiring planning and organization and (gasp!) hard work. I either faked my way through (yes, I invented the data on every science project) or simply didn't do them and only managed to avoid failing classes by acing tests.
Things were worse in my gifted program, SLP (the smug acronym for "Superior Learners Program," which the other kids rightfully derided as "Smart Little People"). Once we had to build a theme park. A theme park! I couldn't build a straight wall with Legos, and I was expected to conceive and construct my own amusement park. Nope. It was hard (and, frankly, stupid), so I just didn't do it.
I managed a B average in high school and college by doing well on tests and short papers, which offset the F's on term papers and other multi-day projects. Physics I failed--or rather, gave up on, which amounted to the same thing. Because I "couldn't do physics," (it was hard!! Waaah!), I couldn't get a biology degree, which to this day ranks as one of my biggest regrets. I wish just one person in my life had said, "Keep trying," instead of, "Yeah, an English major suits your strengths better."
Then somewhere in my mid-twenties, on my own, I decided I didn't want to be an underachiever anymore. Because a smart slacker is still a slacker, going nowhere fast.
I took night classes. I even took Physics, which, it turned out, was still really hard (damn! You think they would've fixed that). But since I was paying the tuition, I studied my brain out and even bought extra books to help me understand the concepts. Lo and behold, I got a B. I was prouder of that B than any 99th percentile score on some meaningless standardized test.
I wrote a novel. A whole novel, even when I had to start over with a new plot. Then I wrote another one, writing one page a day for nine months to complete it before entering grad school.
Ah, grad school. I had the best incentive of all for doing well there: money. Meaning, if I didn't get mostly A's I wouldn't get another fellowship and would have to either pay the second year's tuition (nope) or leave school and go back to work in an office (yeah, right).
So I worked my butt off every moment of those two years. What do I have to show for it? A certificate that says I had the highest GPA of my graduating class (not a 4.0--I stumbled across the finish line with one B because I had three papers due in the last three days).
Big deal, a certificate. But more importantly I learned the most valuable lesson of my life. I learned that whatever innate intelligence I have or don't have, it really doesn't matter, because if I don't work hard, I fail. If I work hard, I do brilliantly (and for me, a B in Physics is brilliant, downright retina-blasting).
For the record, I work REALLY hard on my books. More on hard work, praise, and the writing life tomorrow in Part 2.
In the meantime, what do you think? Are kids overpraised? How will that affect their ability to participate in the workplace? How important is self-esteem, anyway? Should everyone on the team get a trophy?
A-Z Update: "Angel Band" by the Stanley Brothers, from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack