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For their own good
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You work so hard, child
For success, better to praise a child's work ethic, not her smarts.
By SHARY LYSSY MARSHALL, Special to the Times
Published January 6, 2008
I'm listening to my 5-year-old read. She's working her way through Syd Hoff's Sammy the Seal. Although she struggles with the word "know," she gets halfway through the book before deciding it's time for a break.
I am thrilled with her reading, delighted with her teacher and see this as empirical evidence of my child's genius. The words "You are so smart" are forming. And then I stop. I don't say them. I am thinking, instead, of the discussion happening around the country about praise and its effects on children.
Early in my teaching career, I received high marks from administrators in the area of "positive reinforcement" during my lessons. But what exactly was I doing, and was it helpful for students in the long run? According to a growing body of research, I may have been doing more harm than good.
Most American parents feel that children need self-confidence to mature and achieve greatness. And telling kids they are smart is part of the ticket to that future success.
Exactly when this notion became part of the American child-rearing scene isn't clear. Some point to the 1969 publication of Nathaniel Brandon's The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which highlighted the important nature of self-esteem. The book's back cover warns, "Without positive self-esteem, psychological growth is stunted." It sounds quite serious. Others cite the publication a few years later of I'm OK-You're OK by Thomas Harris.
But it turns out that children from Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong - who score at the bottom on self-confidence scales - outperform their American peers, who scored higher on the same scales.
Talking with Floridians who were raised outside of American culture reveals additional details about praise in other cultures. Times staffer Chuin-Wei Yap, who grew up in Singapore, said his parents praised him only for results - not for innate intelligence. Monika Jarosi-Kwong, who spent her childhood in Hungary and South Africa, said, "My parents were nurturing and that gave you self-confidence. They weren't always saying, 'good job.' It was more about doing your best."
This is bad news for the self-esteem crowd. Over a 30-year career, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has shown that the wrong kind of praise can stop a hard-working child in her tracks.
Dweck and her fellow researchers have conducted numerous studies in which students were praised for their intelligence or praised for effort. In a short time, those praised for effort outperformed those praised for their smarts - despite prior academic success or shortfalls. Students praised for intelligence became fearful of looking dumb, while some students in the "effort group" went so far as to request additional work to take home.
As a parent, I seek to encourage my child in whatever way might help her to reach her potential. Some part of my mind has been primed to praise her for being smart, as if telling her she is smart will help her to become more so. According to Dweck, it won't.
Dweck divides the population into two camps: those who view intelligence as fixed and unchangeable and those who see it as malleable - something that can be changed through effort. With last year's mass-market publication of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck shows that parenting styles help perpetuate such views.
Kids reared in a fixed mindset household may seek to avoid challenges in order to continue appearing "smart." A child who has been reared with a growth mindset is more likely to seek challenges. "The bigger the challenge," Dweck says, "the more they stretch."
Dweck and her colleagues have found that children with a fixed perception of intelligence become focused on appearing smart rather than on learning. Even with an excellent track record, these students become frustrated or hesitant when the work becomes more difficult, as it does when students move from elementary to middle school. Students with a growth mindset see harder work as a challenge and are more likely to adjust their work habits to match the rigor.
At a time when school systems around the country grapple with closing the achievement gap, perhaps the ways we praise students should be considered as part of the solution. Dweck's research suggests that when struggling students do well, we must resist the urge to praise them for being smart. If we want to equip students with a mindset to transcend failure through effort, our approval should highlight effective strategies and hard work.
Another Dweck study followed two groups of middle schoolers who participated in a study skills course. Half received additional training about brain development and the growth mindset. In the following weeks, teachers saw clear differences in that group. They had learned that they could change how smart they were, and suddenly they were highly motivated to do something about it. One student even cried. "You mean I don't have to be dumb?" he asked.
Intelligence doesn't come up much as a topic in my Land O'Lakes circle, but it's on every parent's mind. We all hope our children are smart. But many feel IQ is more or less fixed, about as hard to move as the proverbial SAT score.
The father of the IQ test, 19th century education reformer Alfred Binet, would be alarmed. He didn't believe intelligence was fixed. Binet's goal was to identify students who might need help with the stodgy French curriculum.
Albert Einstein and Michael Jordan may have come into the world with great potential, but some of their early experiences did not peg them as future successes. Einstein struggled with verbal language, and Jordan didn't make the high school varsity team on his first tryout. Their aptitude certainly played a role, but they ultimately achieved success through effort and focused passion. They worked within a growth mindset.
If they want to encourage a mindset that recognizes the flexibility and power of the human mind, parents need to encourage effort and praise in an honest way. I mentally try out a few ways to praise and encourage my daughter. "I can tell you are working really hard on that project. You are really doing your best work." I wonder if it's necessary to get involved at all, depending on her own sense of motivation.
My daughter says she is ready to read about the rest of Sammy's adventures. For now, my job is simply to listen.
Shary Lyssy Marshall is a former elementary school teacher and administrator. She is working on her doctorate in education and has spent many hours listening to Sammy the Seal.