Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Short Term Self Esteem, Long-Term Failure

Studies suggest that kids who are told they’re smart end up being slackers and grade grubbers….

Well, it’s not quite that bad. But NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman) leads off with a great piece. In fact, I have a feeling I’m going to be coming back to NurtureShock a lot, here and elsewhere. It’s just the kind of book I love: written with a certain contrarian spirit (dispelling myths about parenting), but without an obnoxious vibe, the authors raise a lot of practical applications from contemporary research –and there are even more that you can think about on your own. “The Inverse Power of Praise”--the title of the first chapter-- documents in intelligent detail some of the consequences of telling kids they’re great a little too often. One of the reasons the authors focused on this issue is that it’s such a conspicuous part of most loving parents’ approach to their kids: tell ‘em early, and tell ‘em often, how great they are. But there is a dark underbelly to affirming your child in the usual sense. Telling a child she’s smart causes problems, because she doesn’t know how or why she’s smart, and so when her abilities fail her, she thinks she’s a failure.

Basically, the more parents and teachers encourage a child’s self esteem on the basis of innate talent and the less they focus on work, the more afraid the kids become of taking risks, the more focused they are on rank, and the more debilitating they find failure. ”Smart” kids learn not to persevere when they’re told they’re bright all the time; when they meet challenges, they cave. Kids who were praised for effort did statistically better on a difficult test given to them after an easy test; kids praised for ability, on the other hand, declined in performance. Essentially, when you tell kids that they did well because they’re just smart, they don’t know how to account for their ability; failure and success then becomes things beyond their control: something that happens to them, not something they can-and should—really work at.

Praise itself is not bad, but if you want it to be useful, it’s better to be specific—and focus on areas where a child can make a clear effort; it’s a bad idea to tell a kid repeatedly how smart he is without making a specific note of the skills that he has developed and what he can work on more.

Bronson, a father himself, discusses his efforts to put his research into practice at the end of the chapter. He notes how difficult it was for him to do so and suggests that it’s because praising our kids is part of the way, in today’s culture, that parents express unconditional love. It’s a great insight, and says a lot about the way we respond to our children. It’s interesting, too, to think about things where we want to instill a sense of identity rather than progress. For example, I’ve been telling my girls since they were little that they’re beautiful. That is something I want them to think they don’t need to work at…But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for studies suggesting the contrary!

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