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Saturday, February 17, 2007

So smart

Becca is probably going to beat me to it, but I can't resist taking my own crack at the New York Magazine article (via Unfogged) about "The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids." You should read it from start to finish, of course, but on the off chance that you feel like finishing this post first, I'll give you the short version: Research shows that kids who are told that they are smart are more likely to underperform than kids who are either told nothing at all or who are praised only for their efforts. In the opening sally of the article, author Po Bronson describes an experiment by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck:
The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
The result? The kids who had been labeled "smart" avoided more challenging work when given the choice, and did more poorly on subsequent work than the kids who had been praised for their efforts. For those kids who had been praised for their efforts, the effect was reversed: they chose more challenging work, and performed better.

As a former "smart" child, these results don't surprise me in the least. They accord exactly with my lived experience (which, of course, says absolutely nothing about the likelihood of their scientific validity, and everything about how quick I will be to accord them gospel status). There is a peculiar helplessness to being the smart kid, a sense of being rewarded only through the mercy of luck, or fate. I suspect that the same effect holds true for the beautiful kids as well. Smart, beautiful: the emphasis on any quality that's perceived as being innate simply serves to convince the child that she is special due to things entirely beyond the child's control. Being "smart" was not something I chose; it just happened that I read earlier than the other kids, and schoolwork came easier to me. That was, in fact, the mark of my smartness -- I needed to put in less effort than the other kids to achieve better results. Putting in less effort became the signature proof of my smartness, and I learned to carefully distinguish between those who put in the effort and those who didn't. (I thought of it, with my 8-year-old logic, as "the not-smart kids who got good grades because they were very careful to have neat handwriting," and "the smart kids who got good grades even though they had really messy handwriting.")

You don't need to have followed the past two years of bloggy inadequacy shtick to guess that, obviously, any sense of self-worth that is predicated on one's ability to get away with putting in as little effort as possible is going to eventually founder. Ultimately the world requires that one works for one's accomplishments, whatever they may be. The most naturally gifted musician needs to practice incessantly; the most brilliant mathematician has to think harder and deeper than her peers to tackle the problem. There is nothing worth doing -- and I'd include parenting in this category -- that isn't done better through the application of more attention and more effort. And the smart kid who has learned to equate effort with the collapse of the quality that marks her as being special is going to be at a marked disadvantage, no matter what advantages the I.Q. tests appear to give her.

From the profile in the article, it seems likely that Dweck understands this to be the main point of her research findings: "'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.'" Bronson says further, "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."

As a former smart kid, I can't agree with this enough. But I still can't quite make myself comfortable with where this article is going, and the points it wants me, now, as a parent, to take away. Where I read Dweck as saying that it's important to teach kids to value the qualities that they can affect through their own efforts, the article and its accompanying blog articles seem to be sending a different message, one that seems more likely to push all the marketable parental panic buttons. "Parents," they say, "you are making fatal errors. What comes naturally to you -- praising your smart, beautiful, talented children -- is going to totally fuck them up. They will be unhappy underachievers, and it will be all your fault. Did you read that about how the single line of praise messed up those kids? You praise your children the wrong way, and, I'm telling you, your children are well on their way to becoming lying, cheating, backstabbing (praise) junkies with wrongly-wired brains!" (I'm exaggerating, but only a little. There are, for example, other ways of expressing that further research found the same results besides writing, "A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this." Very alarming! Very scary!) It's not about getting us to calmly consider more effective ways of getting our messages across to our kids; it's about the perils! of! modern! parenting! It's about how we're never home, we stress our kids out in high-pressure environments, we only care about the qualities in our children that make us feel better about ourselves. In short, it's about what every other media take on parenting seems to be about these days: we are willfully failing our children, and, if we don't change our wrongful ways, we will pay, now or later, with a full accounting of their unhappiness.

This is where I stop and roll my eyes. OK, I'm convinced that I should banish "smart" from my litany of parental exclamations ("You spelled your brother's name, Baby Blue! You're so.... hard-working!") But I cannot with a straight face agree that misfired praise leads inevitably to total catastrophe. One of the dubious advantages of having had an actual rotten childhood is that I have a very concrete sense of how much it really takes to totally mess up a kid. It wasn't being called "smart" that led me down the garden path to a lifetime of underachievement (not to mention lying, cheating, backstabbing, and generalized junkie-like behavior). In fact, I probably could have managed to get along in life fairly well if the worst thing that ever happened to my child-self was that I got described as "smart" a few too many times. It wasn't too much praise that turned my head (far from it!), and it wasn't the label "smart" that irreversibly drained my self-esteem. And even with all the deadly serious mistakes my parents made, I still came out relatively OK. It's almost insulting, honestly. It's a denial of the very real disasters that befall too many children to read these endless crisis-of-the-week parenting articles. There are kids out there who don't have enough love, enough food, enough money, enough books, enough emotionally stable adults, enough safe spaces. And we are supposed to spend our nights worrying about whether praising our kids the wrong way is going to damage them for life? I'm sorry, but this is the parenting example of the constant push in this culture to worry about the things of least import. Paris Hilton? Or global warming? Are they equally important? I'm all over it when the article talks about using this research to improve performance in a magnet school in East Harlem, but when it careens into hand-waving about how parents in Scarsdale or Paramus aren't listening, I could not care less.

You want a real news flash? OK, here it is: if you love your kids enough to be reading parenting articles in an effort to learn how to do a better job as a parent, you are already giving your kids something profound, something that will give them resilience enough to overcome the terrible errors that you make in good faith -- you know, like telling your kids that you think they're smart.

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