Jennifer F linked to this article: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. As I started to read it, I figured it would be another quick article with a single line of advice for parents, and whatever that advice was would surely just add more angst and guilt and concern over whether I was doing everything just right. Thank goodness, for once, I read an article that didn’t advise me to tiptoe around my children’s delicate self-esteem lest I bruise it permanently.
This article is long – 5 pages online and 8 if you print it to read later. It doesn’t take huge studies and pages of conclusions and boil it down into one single concept either. Every page offered more interesting observations and suggestions.
Now, I warn you that there is a certain element of “this is the right way to do it” and “that way is bad” which makes parents check their natural instincts and question their ability to parent properly. Frankly, I’m tired of being held responsible for my children’s personalities and behavior. It’s bad enough that they themselves blame me for their missing shoes; I’ll not have society tell me that their success in life hinges about the manner in which I praise them.
However, as the person who needs to live with them all the time and teach them every year (not just deal with them for a year and pass them off to someone else), it is to my personal benefit to have children motivated to learn, confident in their abilities, and eager to tackle new challenges. And if this leads them to fame and fortune as adults, well, perhaps they might remember poor, old mom who sacrificed so much for them. Perhaps they could spare a slice of that Nobel Prize for Medicine money to get mom a token of their affection…like a Mercedes convertible. You never know.
I’ll not condense that long article into a single concept, but I would like to throw out a few of their ideas. The most important idea seemed to be that simply telling kids they are smart is counter-productive. Kids then assume smartness is a natural ability that doesn’t need to be worked. “Smart” kids will shy away from difficult lessons because if they were really smart they would “get it” right away. Instead, kids (and adults) need to have their efforts praised. This concept applies to all ages of people and for all things from academics to sports. “You’re a great ball player” doesn’t cut it. “That was a great play you made in the 3rd inning at 2nd base” is good praise.
Some of this is probably obvious for experienced parents, especially, I think, homeschoolers who are forced to deal with their kids for long periods of time. But we can all fall into the easy praise mode when pressed for time or tired. “You can do math” is that quick encouragement we throw out as we get a snack for another child or head upstairs to put the baby down for a nap. Better is it to praise their efforts. Children (and adults) need to understand that intelligence is something obtainable by hard work. The harder you work, the smarter you are. Natural ability only gets you so far. Algebra, perhaps, come naturally (I think so, but I’m a math geek)…calculus, I promise you, is only understood through effort.
All the way on page 4, the article discusses the trait of persistence. If you’ve ever had a persistent child, you will know how trying it is. We want persistent adults – but, oh! – they are difficult children to raise. Nonetheless, persistence in adults does not generally develop overnight.
But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. 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.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.
I can definitely see how overly praising children leads to a lack of persistence. The moment that reward is gone, the effort ceases. Of course, praise only works exclusively when children are young. As they get older, they need tangible rewards: candy, food, toys, money. “If you get straight As, I’ll get you that laptop.” Praise and rewards are often very useful to get through difficult periods or to focus on a particular behavior (potty training is a prime example). Even adults use self-rewards (no snacking today and I’ll let myself have dessert tonight). But we don’t give candy to 10 year olds when they use the toilet. In fact, we don’t give candy to 2 year olds either if high-fives seem successful. At some point, we need to do things just because. We need to persist, because we want to succeed. And we need to want to succeed for our own sakes, and not to please parents or impress peers.