“Hey, son son, you’re really smart. Have I ever told you that?”
“Yes, Mommy. I know. I know I’m smart.”
There is a belief going around claiming parental praise causes lowered self-worth in children. A Google search for “praising children” cautions any parent about thinking twice before saying these three words: you are smart. Top search titles include, “Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids,” “Wrong Kind of Praise for Kids Can Backfire,” “Encouragement or Praise–Which is Better?”
It’s a scary theory for every “praise” parent. We are enabling our children. We are harming their future ability. We are destroying future confidence.
The original study, by Stanford University, states its premise by implicating that praising children for their intelligence creates lowered performance skills, whereas praising children for the effort they make instills the desire to keep performing.
This study is based on school teachers advocating a job “well done.” It holds the idea that admiring intelligence causes more pressure on a child to continue being intelligent, and reversely that the child becomes complacent in his abilities, believing he does not need to strive for success. It links praise with numerical achievement (e.g. grades), and claims that focusing on high scores negatively impacts a child’s affect, along with his behavior.
Children who achieve high grades feel pressure to maintain these scores, while children who receive low grades hold the belief that they are not worthy, intelligent, or adequate.
In fact, in the study, children in the group of intelligence-based praise are given a set of problems, and regardless of their ability, they are told they scored an eighty percent, and are doing extremely well. They are then praised with the words “you must be so smart,” and asked if they want to continue onto the next set of problems. During second set of problems, the children receive negative feedback. Suddenly, they hear “ you did a lot worse,” and are again asked if they want to continue. The research concludes that the majority of the children who are informed they have functioned poorly choose to leave the experiment.
Go figure. So would I.
This part of the study—the part where the kids receive negative feedback—is not quoted when the idea of praising children filters through the community. Instead, what is gleaned from the study is that when children are told they are smart, they give up—whereas children who are praised for their effort strive for problem-solving situations.
Nice try, but not exactly.
Another study, from the same group of researchers in Stanford, moves from the school setting, to the parental role, with the same premise. This study judges a child’s ability to take risks later in life, and achieve life goals. It holds the premise that if a child thinks she is smart, but later realizes she’s not as smart as she’s been led to believe, she loses all self-worth as an adult.
From there, the bandwagon joins in.
Psychologists are in love with this theory. One even lauds the fact that, in a room full of parents, he can pose the idea that a person’s happiest memory does not involve a parent. Chuckling at his own revelation, he quotes that eighty percent realize their happiest memory happened without adult supervision. The reason, he states, that children need to have less parental interaction, is so that they can take risks, feel failure, and learn the value of independence–without pressure, praise, or parent.
Reading that, I saw red.
Psychology is creating an idea that not only should one not praise their child, but they should stay completely out of their child’s life. Apparently, not speaking to children, and approaching a “hands-off” style of parenting, teaches them to become independent. It sounds like a good premise, and some of these studies are worded in such a way that many people agree, without thinking the theory through. But, thinking is what they should do, in order to see the ramifications of this belief.
While people are leaping onto this “no praise” study, they miss the biggest point: the negative feedback aspect. The simple fact of the matter is that these children were told they were not good enough, that they had performed poorly, and that they weren’t as smart as the researcher first assumed. Only after feeling worthless are they asked to keep doing problems that made them feel dumb.
Except, it is not the problem that makes them feel worthless, it is the careless word choice of the person judging the task.
Tell a child they are not good enough, and then see if they want to continue, in order to make a point about praise. Really? That’s not psychology at its finest: it’s a mental beating. Luckily, the children left the session with their esteem in tact—that’s right, they were praised, and learned again to believe in themselves.
Here’s the deal: children will spend their entire lives hearing they aren’t good enough. They will achieve great things, and they will fail magnificently. But, the one thing our children need is a person in their corner, being their cheerleader at life.
Praising them, believing in them, and rooting for them.
Dr. Ben Carson, a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon, has one such mother. His teachers told him he wasn’t smart enough. They made him believe that he couldn’t achieve greatness, only mediocrity. He began believing that in himself. His mother—who luckily couldn’t read, and didn’t know not to praise her child—told him every day that he was smart. She taught him to believe in himself. She stood in his corner, and became his greatest cheerleader.
He became the first surgeon, ever, to successfully separate conjoined twin’s hearts.
As for myself, my parents tell me I am smart—brilliant, in fact. They sure do love to lay that praise on thick. Every time I come to them with a story about failure, my mother tells me to keep trying, to keep achieving my dreams. In the eyes of psychology today, I should be living in a hole, sucking my thumb, unable to carry myself upright.
Growing up, not many teachers believed in me. I got in trouble for talking, chewing gum, passing notes, and not paying attention in general. I was told many things, but those words boiled down to one premise: I simply was not smart enough.
Like the researchers, teachers shot me down.
Every time I found myself feeling worthless, my mother lifted me with these words, “Jaime, you are smart. You just need to apply yourself.”
From this praise, I know to believe in myself; I know what she sees in me. I can reach for the Heavens, and pull back the moon. Because, at the end of the day, it’s really not praise that defines a person’s self-worth. It’s not lack of praise, or even praise based on actual achievement. It’s the fact that someone else—like a parent—believes in a child so much they will push for success by telling the child he is smart. They teach him to learn to see his achievements, and take risks.
That is what builds independence, self-worth, and the drive to succeed.