Don’t tell your kids that they are smart

Very intriguing and parentally useful article in New York magazine this week about how and (more importantly) how not to talk to your kids.  In our culture obsessed with self esteeem, it turns out that building high self esteem is not the key to your kids doing well in life.  In fact, it is well known that psychopaths tend to have very high self esteeem.  Some educational psychologists have been doing some interesting experiments on the effects of how we praise our children:

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.

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 past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia
(she?s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a
dozen New York schools. Her seminal work?a series of experiments on 400
fifth-graders?paints the picture most clearly.

sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade
classrooms. 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.?

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 students were given a choice of test for the second round. One
choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the
researchers told the kids that they?d learn a lot from attempting the
puzzles. The other choice, Dweck?s team explained, was an easy test,
just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent
chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ?smart? kids took the cop-out.

It turns out that praising children for their innate intelligence can be extremely counterproductive:

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.

her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held
true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and
girls?the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most
following failure). Even preschoolers weren?t immune to the inverse power of praise.

The article makes quite a compelling case.  After reading it I have already changed the way I talk to David when he is doing his homework.  I am praising his hard work, but not his intelligence.  Alas, there's no control to see what difference this may make.  Perhaps I'll praise Evan for his intellect and see who ends up performing better in school eventually.  What's the point of being a social scientist if you cannot experiment on your own children :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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