How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise

Po Bronson:

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’s 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 balked. 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 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.

Tom Ashbrook talked with Bronson, Carol Dweck and Bob Younglove. Listen here.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise”

  1. Well, it depends on what and how you praise. I work in the brain injury field, where people may or may not realize how impaired they have become. It is much more effective in rehabilitation to praise the effort than the outcome. Futher, you want to set a series of short-term goals that are stepped and attainable with some effort. Sometimes friendly competition is a motivator; sometimes distraction by making it a puzzle or game. When my daughter, a gifted child, was having a bit of difficulty understanding how to do long division, and was refusing to do her homework, we played a game called, “Math Under the Table.” Just setting up our “fort” for a couple weeks under the kitchen table and doing long division was enough to get her motivated. There is usually something in the person that can be switched on that will overcome the fear of failing. You just have to find it.

  2. The notion that there exists a magic bullet that “fixes” kids so they will learn has always been nonsense. “Self Esteem” is not something that is developed by praise alone as Dweck has shown. Neither is Ridalin a “fix” for kids who don’t seem motivated to pay attention. This asinine paradigm that says kids are broken and we fix them by having teachers prescribe medication, label them (to be pigeonholed as ADHD or some other convenient scarlet letter), or by praising whatever they do is reducto ad absurbum. I am an amateur musician playing clarinet and singing. I do not expect nor do I receive praise for “effort.” I get criticism and that points me to what should be achieved rather than sugar coating the message that a performance isn’t all that good. There are ways to recognize honest achievement steps without ladling on thick praise where it is unearned!

  3. To a very limited extent, I might agree with Wilson. Thick and unearned praise is easy to recognize, and probably harmful in itself.
    However, being an adult, and perhaps already accomplished and having sufficient self-respect to weather criticism, does not mean children are so immune — they are absolutely not!
    The longitudinal study resulting in the publication “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” by Hart and Risley prove conclusively that one critical factor in low achievement of kids (who then are in need of being “fixed”) is parents (typically mothers) whose interactions with their children are predominately negative. In this 3 year study of kids starting with kids 6 months of age, at the age of 3 years, kids subjected to predominately negative interactions lagged 6 months behind kids whose interactions were predominately positive. There were other factors also present, but the result, extended to kids entering school show a clear cause and effect of the lack of appropriate support — praise, encouragement, etc.
    “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Farber and Mazlish is a workbook for doing it right.
    Kids are emotionally fragile, especially at young ages, and especially in their interactions with their parents. As a parent, I’ve experienced it. And, when kids first interact with their peers in school, and find, to their surprise, that they do not “measure up”, that damage can be (is) often devastating.
    Even kids, entering college, are still searching for their identity, and measuring themselves with others. Just because a kid is 17 or 18 doesn’t mean they’ve “arrived”. There are reasons for high dropout rates in colleges (and high school) — and it’s likely not because the kids are truly unable to intellectually handle the material.
    There may not be a magic bullet that quickly “fixes” kids after parents have f**ked up through actively harming their kids or neglect, lack of opportunity, the unkind word that continues to linger, or by remediation by schools that is not done in a way that respects the kids emotionally.
    It’s easy to criticize — there is always plenty of fault to find, and to believe that a constant diet of raw “honesty” is beneficial and promotes improvement is pure nonsense.
    Dweck’s simple suggestions for praise, costing us nothing, and potentially having great effect, is worth doing.

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