Thursday, February 22, 2007

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.


SteveH said...

"but I wonder if perhaps these kids were praised a little too much for intelligence, and too little for effort growing up"

For my son (fifth grade), everything comes easily. There is no G/T program and he has to work, but not very hard. It's surprising when he brings home a grade as low as 90. Most of his grades are over 100. (Grade inflation and extra credit are issues here too.) Even without a lot of praise, he can tell that he is different.

I don't think that it's a praise issue. It's an expectation and hard work issue. My son is rarely challenged. He doesn't know what it's like to really work hard. I've seen him get frustrated in a second when he can't figure something out immediately. I look at him in amazement and explain that he has to work at it.

Full-inclusion makes things worse. Expectations are low and the only thing they provide for the more able kids is enrichment. This is more about busywork. In some classes, the teacher can set higher expectations for the same material, such as writing a report or analysis of a book. But for other content and skill-rich subjects, like math or history, they can't allow the kids to get too far ahead. In many cases, schools won't stop a child from doing more work on their own or setting higher expectations, but being smart doesn't automatically translate into initiative and drive.

At some point, most all kids will reach a wall where it takes more than brains to succeed. It will take hard work. I told my mother that one of the top three things I want for my son is to know the value of hard work. He is not learning that at school. Praising him less won't fix the problem.

I see it in his piano playing. Everyone is amazed and praises him. Perhaps praise leads to complacency, but if the praise all went away, I don't think he would practice harder. What will make him work harder is to be among his peers who have high expectations.

I would praise my son more for effort, but he doesn't have too many of those opportunities. Praise is not the problem. Opportunity is.

noshua.watson said...

Not to nitpick, but going to grad school isn't exactly the best way to get an ego boost. Maybe you're thinking of professional/practitioner degrees like JDs and MBAs. For your typical MA, MS or PhD, there's very little immediate satisfaction from completing tests and papers in grad school. Especially after you've rewritten the same dissertation chapter five times.

The goal of grad school is to impress upon you how stupid you are, not how smart you are. Grad students are deliberately given far more work than they can complete in the time given. Praise for anything, let alone your intelligence or effort, is in very short supply.

Half of all doctoral students never finish. They're all smart, but only the persistent ones make it.

debbie said...

I have to say ditto to what Steveh said. I understand your point to be that gifted kids should be praised more often for effort and not be praised for "being smart." But, like steveh, my child has very little opportunity, unless I specifically structure it, to even NEED to work hard.

He is only 5 years old yet sees the difference between he and his classmates. We've had to pull him out of the public school to do partial homeschooling as they said they could not offer him any further accomodation to challenge him in math.

I think the difficulty for a parent is that I can create more challenging opportunities at home - that is my job as a parent of a gifted child, but if the message he is always getting at school is that he is the smartest (or one of the smartest) and he never has to work hard for anything at school, then my job as a parent just got a lot more difficult. I wish the schools would help us out a little bit here!

Marianna said...

I was a gifted child, even though at the time and in my country my abilities and talents were not noticed. But looking back there is no doubt and I do have a high IQ as an adult. Everything was so easy in school and I knew I was smart, after all everyone told me so since I was a kid. So when I went to college I found myself unprepared in the simple habit of sitting down and studying. Since I never had to study very hard prior to college I wasn’t prepared for the exertion. The worst part, I was puzzled why I wasn’t performing as well as I had expected and had done in the past (after all I was SMART). I was frustrated and yet had no idea how to fix it. As a result I didn’t get good grades. Although I did graduate with a B.S. in Computational Mathematics, my years in college were fraught with much stress, bad study habits, failures of courses and a low graduating GPA. I have found professional success and have done well since then. But had I been truly challenged as a young child this would have helped to establish good studying habits, these would have assisted me in all aspects of my education in later years.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the problem with my 15yr old son - HS sophomore. He's never had to work at school and was told by teachers (and me) how smart he was with no effort at all. Now that he's taking 4 AP classes (English, Comp Sci, Calculus, and Chemistry) he's not doing so well because he doesn't know how to work at something that doesn't come instantly. The Calculus teacher doesn't require homework, so of course he does none, but still can make an A. Same with Comp Sci. In Chemistry though, he's failing because he won't do the work for fear of being inadequate. In his mind, it's better to fail because of lack of effort because if he tries and still fails then it's the end of the world. I wish he'd had more opportunity to be challenged when he was younger so that he could have developed more tolerance for frustration and effort.

The Princess Mom said...

It's the same story with my 15yo son. He was failing AP Euro History and AP Chem until we sat him down and organized him--several times. It's an ongoing process (just did it again tonight). Maybe its something about 15 yo boys??? ;-)

I have to wonder if it's only gifted kids who aren't learning how to study, though. Maybe no one knows how to study, but we "smart kids" are the ones who realize we could have done better if we'd known how to try? Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

My son is in 8th grade and not challanged at all n school. Never had to put any effort to score A+. I enrolled him in EPGY Physics course and noticed that he got frustrated when he didnt "get" the concept/answer immediately. I am glad we recognized this issue and we have been working with him to see that he puts effort to make progress. Its been about 3 months and I believe he is getting a hang of it. The course is expensive, but getting him on track was well worth it.

Anonymous said...

The point is not to praise smartness.. They were born that way and they didn't achieve that by their work ethic or trials of life or learning.. The point is to praise their effort and theprocessess they experience..if schools' not hard enough praising their a ability is hollow..because they know they didn't work hard through a process or problem or learning experience as a teacher is that the truely successfulgifted kids pursue harder work and engage themselves..And seek out challenge when they are finding things slow.. They are never truly bored..
They don't wait around for others to make their experiences...they take what they are faced with and run with it.. school can't provide GT or even enrichments like art and music; if all they are doing is preparing for state tests....then they have to be taken to museums,concerts experiences of those types help them on their path..truly "smart" kids use those experiences's not about doing algebra in about how they think and view the world .