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Should we tell our children that they are smart?
You are so SMART!
How should we praise our children? Being a teacher and mother to three girls, I have a lot of opinions on how we should build the self-esteem of our children. Praising kids for beauty and intelligence is important, but in what ways should we accomplish this?
With the publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969 by Nathaniel Branden, the idea that high self-esteem is the main foundation for success has dominated parenting and teaching philosophies. Until recently, this belief system has prevailed in parenting styles as well as in classrooms to the extent that all criticism has been minimized.
Now don't get me wrong, it is incredibly important for us all to have a feeling of self-worth and acceptance, but are we praising our children too much and are we doing it right? Are they given the skills to work at a goal instead of expecting to complete it easily because they are told they are "smart"? Do we set our children up for failure by telling them how smart they are, when in all actuality maybe they are right where they should be: in the middle of that bell curve? I have a feeling that the way we praise is going to change; not that teachers and parents are going to be overly critical of their students, but that they are going to be changing the way they praise their kids.
Does telling your child they're smart actually cause underperformance?
Carol Dweck, a researcher at Columbia and Stanford, is a leading researcher in the effects of praise on students. She and four female research assistance studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth graders in New York schools. Students were divided into two groups: the praise group and the encouragement group. All of the students were given a series of puzzles that were easy to complete. The praise group was told, "You must be smart at this," while the encouragement group was told, "You must have worked really hard."
After the one line of praise or encouragement, the students were given a choice of the type of test to take next. They could either choose a harder set of puzzles that they would learn more from attempting or an easy test like the first. Of those children given praise for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. The majority of students that were told they were smart chose the easier set.
Dweck concluded that, "When we praise children for their intelligence we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." This is exactly what the students did, they were afraid of failure and chose the easy road.
Dweck and her researchers then did a second and third round. In the second study the students were given puzzles that were very difficult, two grade levels above their abilities. Everyone failed, but their responses were the interesting part. Those praised for their efforts assumed they just hadn't tried hard enough; tried a variety of solutions; got very involved; and still enjoyed the test. Those praised for their smarts assumed they just weren't smart after all and were miserable.
After this round the team gave the students a final round of tests that were the same level as the first tests: easy. Those praised for their efforts did about 30 percent better than their first try, while those praised for their smarts did about 20 percent worse.
Dweck concluded that control played a major role in the students' perfomances. Effort can be controlled and students will work to complete a task, being smart is innate and cannot be controlled.
This study has been repeated and no differences were found between boys and girls or among children of different socio-economical backgrounds.
What I think...
The key to praise is specificity and encouragement of effort, rather than the token, "Great job, Timmy! You are so smart!". Instead, a teacher may say, "I noticed you really thought about how you were going to construct that paragraph, Timmy," or "Look at the vibrant colors in that picture. I notice how precise your strokes are."
The later examples encourages the child to keep up the effort and work toward their goal rather than stopping the process because their work is already great. What is the motivation for the child to continue a project if an authority figure has already given it the thumbs up?
NY Times Article
- How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise
Definitely worth reading!