I discussed the self-esteem movement and the growing challenge to its belief that a performance was inextricably linked to self-esteem. As parents we are proud of our children, try to protect them from disappointment and often demonstrate our love by expressing our admiration for them. Many parents routinely praise their offspring telling them how clever they are.
The praise is well-intentioned and intended to boost the child’s self-esteem, but does it result in improved performance and achievement?
I have quoted from an article which appeared in the New York Magazine in 2007 entitled How Not to Talk to Your Kids.
Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth grader at the highly competitive PS.334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are ‘the smart kids’. Thomas’s one of them and he likes belonging. Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come into contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for Kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top 1% of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top 1%. He scored in the top 1% of the top 1%.
But as Thomas has progressed through school this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’ father noticed just the opposite. ‘Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at’, his father says. ‘Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, “I’m not good at this’”. With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two – things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he bolted. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. ‘Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.’ (Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father).
Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?
Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10% on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.
When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they are smart. So many people do it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talent short.
However, current research shows more and more conclusively that this kind of praise has the opposite effect. Rather than building the confidence to tackle increasingly difficult tasks, it makes children risk-averse. Children often become more concerned about preserving their reputation as ‘clever’ and tend to avoid tasks at which they perceive that they might not succeed. The seminal research in this regard was conducted by psychologist, Professor Carol Dweck, now at Stanford University. She demonstrated that by praising effort rather than cleverness, children were far more willing to tackle challenging tasks and therefore consequently make substantially better learning progress.
Next: Dweck’s research findings.