Are we actually hurting our children’s ability to cope with challenges and be persistent by praising their intelligence instead of their effort?
All my Facebook friends were abuzz this weekend about an article in New York magazine that suggests just that – that praise for intelligence makes kids want to look smart and not take risks or make mistakes. The researchers believe it tells them to throw in the towel (or cheat) when they finally confront something they don’t know how to do.
For 10 years, Carol Dweck and a team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) has studied the affect of praise on students. The article explains Dweck’s experiments in detail on pages one and two but I cannot pull that many quotes from it. So please read the article for all the info. (I am just pulling some highlights.)
“…’When we praise children for their intelligence,’ Dweck wrote in her study summary, ‘we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.’ And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed. ”
“In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. ‘They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,’ Dweck recalled. ‘Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.’ ….”
“Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. ‘Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,’ she explains. ‘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.’ ”
Dweck found that smart kids felt they didn’t need to put out effort because they are smart. And if they have to put out effort then that must mean they are actually dumb.
Dweck says we need to emphasize that the brain is a muscle and it needs to be exercised to grow. We need to give it harder work to make you smarter.
Then the article goes into self-esteem. You may wonder when trophies started being handed out to all kids. Well this article explains that trend.
“Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.”
However, the article suggests that these studies were wrong. That kids are actually suspicious of praise and actually think you don’t think they are smart or successful and need that support.
The article suggests that when you do praise, it needs to be specific and sincere. But some think that criticism may actually be more helpful sending the message that the parent or teacher believes you can improve your performance further. (I did have a professor who kept giving me Bs on papers and other ding-dongs in the class were getting As. It made me so mad. Finally the last grade I got was an A! I pushed myself to get that A. I was determined. I definitely think he was grading me harder to push me to do more.)
The article then goes on to talk about how by giving too many rewards kids may not learn to try, try again.
“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. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.”
I think that we do tell our kids that they are smart but we also emphasize to them they have to work hard and not waste what God has given them. We tell them a story about a friend of ours that was literally a genius in school and was last seen taking money in a parking garage. This friend didn’t want to work hard or apply himself.
We have worked hard to make sure they are doing challenging work at school and aren’t just breezing through with half effort. (This is part of a current middle school dilemma was a facing that I plan to write about soon.)
I do think after reading this article I will be more aware of what I am praising and how I am praising. I knew you were supposed to be specific but I think I will work harder at praising the process and sticking to things.
So what do you think? Are you buying you shouldn’t praise intelligence but hard work? What do you think you are currently saying to your kids? Will you change what you praise or how you praise based on this research?