This is so hard to avoid. I find myself biting my tongue so often with the Dread Pirate Grasshopper in particular because he is so strikingly gifted. I often end up saying, “Wow. You’re so s- er super good at working hard.”
For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent 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 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.
But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
The research is fascinating. In one study they took kids out of class to do a fairly easy test that all the kids could do well. They told half the kids “You must be really smart,” and they told the other half that they had worked hard. Just a single line of praise- and that was a deliberate choice. Then they gave them a choice about what puzzle to do next – one described as ‘hard’ but you can learn a lot from it, and one described as easier. about 9 out of 10 of the kids praised for their hard work chose the test described as hard. About 9 out of 10 of the kids praised for being smart avoided the risk of not being seen as smart any more, and chose the easy test.
The tests continued, with every round demonstrating that kids do better when praised for their effort rather than praised for their smarts, that being praised for intelligence is a huge burden to children. In the final round, they were given a test just as easy as the first one- and the kids initially praised for effort scored better than they had the first time, and the kids praised for intelligence scored worse.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.
All the kids pretty much responded the same way, although the smartest girls seemed to find the stress of being ‘smart’ the most burdensome and were most likely to fall apart when they failed. I read another study somewhere that a lot of very bright girls risk teen pregnancy subconsciously as a way out of the pressure cooker of being smart and having to live with so many high expectations as a result of that. I can’t find it right now, so maybe don’t put too much faith in this, think of it more as a raised question.
When gifted kids have to work at something, however slightly, they feel like fakes. They worry that they will be found out. So they don’t do stuff they have to work at. Yes, yes, there are always exceptions, but we’re not talking about a few examples that make this stat not 100%. We’re talking about a general trend- kids praised for being intelligent recognize that intelligence is not something they can control. They don’t necessarily feel that smart, either, but they know that this is their adults admire about them, because the adults talk it up all the time. So if they lose that, and they can, because they don’t feel like that they are that much smarter than everybody else, then what’s left?
When things do tend to come easily, you don’t know how to work at understanding something, either, because you don’t have a lot of experience with that. And since you’ve been told you’re smart, if you don’t get it pretty quickly, you assume it’s just too hard, and you don’t try. After all, you’ve been praised constantly for your intelligence, not for your effort or hard work. If something is too hard for you, that’s because it’s just too hard.
So why do we think self-esteem is so important? Junk science, pop culture, and looking for short cuts- that’s my opinion, especially that last.
From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.
After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
Sincerely praising kids for specific things done well is effective. But praising them to raise their self esteem backfires and communicates almost the complete opposite of what you wanted them to get from it.
Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.
We’re a nation of cynics and cool adult kids, too cool for cheesy stories like the Little Engine That Could. We like behavior modification and charts with stickers and prizes (why we don’t see those as scheesy, but careful, honest praise for hard work is, I am not sot sure). And this was fascinating, and very reminiscent of Charlotte Mason, who was teaching against the use of rewards for school work over a hundred years ago- the act of persistence, trying harder, is actually ‘governed by a circuit in the brain,’ and they’ve found this circuit. It’s something they can see on an MRI.
Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.”
…Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
Charlotte Mason was saying this a hundred years ago:
if a system of marks [grades and 'merits'] be used as a stimulus to attention and effort, the good marks should be given for conduct rather than for cleverness––that is, they should be within everybody’s reach: every child may get his mark for punctuality, order, attention, diligence, obedience, gentleness; and therefore, marks of this kind may be given without danger of leaving a rankling sense of injustice in the breast of the child who fails. Emulation becomes suicidal when it is used as the incentive to intellectual effort, because the desire for knowledge subsides in proportion as the desire to excel becomes active. As a matter of fact, marks of any sort, even for conduct, distract the attention of children from their proper work, which is in itself interesting enough to secure good behaviour as well as attention.
But the fact that a successful examination of one sort or another is the goal towards which most of our young people are labouring with feverish haste and with undue anxiety, is one which possibly calls for the scrutiny of the investigating Why?
In the first place, people rarely accomplish beyond their own aims. Their aim is a pass, not knowledge; ‘they cram to pass and not to know; they do pass and they don’t know,’ says Mr. Ruskin
What we must guard against in the training of children is the danger of their getting into the habit of being prodded to every duty and every effort. Our whole system of school policy is largely a system of prods. Marks, prizes, exhibitions, are all prods; and a system of prodding is apt to obscure the meaning of must and ought for the boy or girl who gets into the habit of mental and moral lolling up against his prods.
All those prizes can mislead students, and distract their focus from the real goal of an education:
boys and girls may be so full of marks and places, prizes and scholarships, that they never see that their studies are meant to unlock the door for them into this or that region of intellectual joy and interest. School and college over, their books are shut for ever.
She called this use of prizes, praise, and rewards an appeal to the desires, and sometimes government by desires, and she felt it very undesirable in the upbringing of children:
It is astonishing how crude may be the character, how unformed the principles, how undeveloped the affections towards country, kindred, or kind, after a successful school career; the reason being, that the principle of government through the desires has left these things out of count. Nor is this the whole; the successful schoolboy too often develops into a person, devoid of intelligent curiosity, who hates reading, and shirks the labour of thought.
We easily turn our kids into ‘praise junkies,’ especially when the praise we use is centered on innate abilities over which the children have very little control (such as intelligence).
Their goal becomes more praise, and more risk aversion, because they don’t want to make mistakes that might result in less praise. We teach them that the goal is praise, or good grades, or stickers and prizes, rerouting their brains so that they lose sight of the fact that the real reward of an education is knowledge, the stuff of the mind and heart.