Do you ever think about how you talk to your children? About how much praise you give, how often they are called smart, and what consequences this will have later in life? Po Bronson presents some fascinating research about these issues in his New Yorker piece "How Not To Talk To Your Kids". Turns out that most parents can (and should?) change the way they offer praise and encouragement to their children.
Do you constantly tell your children they are smart? You might want to reconsider that approach. Even if children are smart, they are then likely to "adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves". They are likely to lack understanding of how important effort is in the school of life.
When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart.
But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
Statistics and research can often be tilted to show a certain outcome so as usual I ask readers to interpret results with common sense. But the research for this article seems solid and the results make perfect sense to me. The smart kids, who are constantly told they are smart, severely "underestimate their own abilities", adopt lower standards for success, and expect less of themselves". Throughout the article, Bronson quotes researcher Dweck and her experiments repeatedly.
Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts
Dweck even got parts of the Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem to apply a simple strategy based on her research and the results were excellent.
I would like my kids to have a great and happy life but I've never felt a need to give comments about how smart they are. But the article talks about another important issue, self esteem and praise. I try to praise my kids in their daily lives and have always heard that positive reinforcement is great. Good self esteem is important but it turns out most parents, including me, could use praise much more effectively. As a matter of fact, the way we use praise might in many cases have a negative effect on our kids.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a leading proponent of self-esteem, was a few years ago asked to review a mountain of research on self esteem and praise. Turns out much of previous conclusions were based of flawed science. He's views have never been the same since.
Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”
I like to give my kids lots of praise. Even for the simplest things. It's a great feeling. But maybe not such a bright idea after all. The conclusions of all this research is not that praise is bad, just that it needs to be applied differently. Key factors stand out. For praise to be effective it needs to be specific, sincere, and credible.
Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.
A number of examples are given in the article which were effective in giving me a better understanding of my own behavior concerning praise. After reading this I will try to make some changes in how I use praise on my children.
What we need to teach our kids is how to learn from mistakes and not to give up. To be a little stubborn and not be afraid to use effort to achieve goals whatever they might be.
But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification
If we can teach our kids this trait they have a great chance of doing meaningful things in their lives. The author tried to grasp the concept of effectively using praise and used it on her 5-year old son. Turns out it's not as easy as it sounds to use praise more selectively.
What would it mean, to give up praising our children so often? Well, if I am one example, there are stages of withdrawal, each of them subtle. In the first stage, I fell off the wagon around other parents when they were busy praising their kids. I didn’t want Luke to feel left out. I felt like a former alcoholic who continues to drink socially. I became a Social Praiser.
Then I tried to use the specific-type praise that Dweck recommends. I praised Luke, but I attempted to praise his “process.” This was easier said than done. What are the processes that go on in a 5-year-old’s mind? In my impression, 80 percent of his brain processes lengthy scenarios for his action figures.
This kind of thinking sounds awfully similar to what goes on in my own mind. I've listened to others and read about how great it is to constantly give praise. It's important to remember that research doesn't show we shouldn't use praise on our children. Only that they will benefit if we do it in a smarter way.
I found the article a fascinating and eye opening read. It's not that I was clueless about the results but I never thought about using praise in this way. What do you think, does this make sense? Could you use praise more effectively on your children?
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