Praise: The Powers and Perils
Po Bronson is one of my favorite kid/parenting issues writers (I mentioned his essay for Time on Barbie v. Baby Einstein on this blog a few months ago). He had a cover story last week in New York magazine on the The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.
The feature is based on some research done a few years ago by Carol Dweck, a psychologist who's now at Stanford. Dweck discovered that, despite all the self-esteem literature out there, praise can actually discourage your kid from trying tough things -- that is, if you do it wrong. In one classic example of her studies, kids were given an easy test, one on which the researchers knew they'd do well. The kids were then told their scores and given a single line of praise. It was either "You must be smart at this" or "You must have worked really hard."
Then the kids were given a choice of which test to take next. One of the tests, kids were told, was hard, but they'd learn a lot from the puzzles. The other was easy, like the last one. Of the kids praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder test. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, the majority chose the easier one. A single line of praise made that much of a difference.
For a third test, the kids didn't get a choice -- it was hard for everyone. The kids praised for their effort struggled but threw themselves into trying. Some volunteered that it was their favorite test. Those praised for their intelligence, though, hated it - they felt massive distress as they found themselves failing. On a fourth test, as easy as the first, the group praised for effort improved their scores by about 30% despite their previous failing performance. The group praised for their intelligence took the failure to heart, and scored 20% lower than their first round attempts.
Dweck hypothesized that the one difference between these two groups of kids was a sense of control. Effort is something kids can control. Simply "being smart" is not. Those praised for being smart don't want to risk not appearing smart. They are absolutely petrified of trying something and failing. Those praised for effort want to put in more effort, so they do. The two approaches ensure drastically different results.
I've read this study before, but reading the Po Bronson article got me thinking about it again in relation to gifted kids. Few gifted kids are truly challenged in school. That's a problem not because gifted kids are somehow more deserving of "special" work, but because they learn that things should always come easy to them. They are constantly labeled "smart" for minimum effort. After a while, your self-image becomes wrapped up in being "smart." You don't want to risk not appearing smart, which means you never stick with something that's difficult, or that you don't stand out at immediately.
That's a problem because any change in life requires mastering new skills. I know gifted kids who've dropped out of college because suddenly the work wasn't easy anymore. They invented stories about "oh, they just don't understand me here" but I wonder if perhaps these kids were praised a little too much for intelligence, and too little for effort growing up. I suspect that many gifted kids suffer a tough transition to the real world for the same reason. When building a career, there is often no "right" answer -- there are simply choices you must make with imperfect information. It's not immediately obvious if you've made smart decisions or not. So people flee back to graduate school where they can see that they're making progress, and where tests and papers provide immediate evidence of their status as intelligent people. Or they hop from job to job, not because the hopping is getting them somewhere they want to be, but because they want the immediate rush of being the smart new hire. Taking risks to create something new within institutions, or on their own, and possibly failing in front of everyone, is just out of the question.
As Bronson points out, not praising a kid as "smart" takes a lot of discipline on the part of a parent. Calling our kids smart is an easy way to show unconditional love, and praising a state of existence allows some of that praise to rub off on the people responsible for the kid's existence (meaning us). No one controls effort but the kid himself.
But ultimately children have to learn to deal with life themselves, without hovering parents or teachers giving constant reassurance. Equipping gifted children with this skill is probably the greatest gift parents can give them.