Saturday, August 29, 2009

“Good Job! You’re So Smart!”

When my wife Jennifer and I were kindergarten shopping one of the schools we looked at required an I.Q. test. I recoiled at the idea, phoning a child psychiatrist friend, looking for support for my knee-jerk response. Of course, testing the intelligence of a 5-year-old is a bad idea.

Richard responded by saying he’d spent his entire career around these tests and had never seen them damage a child in any way. In fact, the kids he tested usually enjoyed taking them. “But,” he added, “I’ve see a lot of parents use the tests to hurt their kids.”

He explained that a high percentage of parents who have their children tested also tend to be of the high strung, hovering variety, and that these tests just give them one more way to pass their anxiety on to their kids. That’s kind of what I’d expected him to say, but then he went on to add something I hadn’t thought of. He said that these tests are just snapshots and not predictors of the future. “I try really hard to make sure parents hear me say that I.Q. test results for a 5-year-old are only valid for 6 months, but they just don’t listen. If they get a high score, parents like sticking the label of genius on their kids as if it’s a badge they get to wear for the rest of their lives. Then they burden them with praise.”

Praise is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to our children.

A 10-year study of New York City 5th graders conducted by Carol Dweck while a professor of psychology at Columbia University, found that praising kids for their intelligence might actually be causing them to underperform academically. It seems that children who have been praised for their innate intellectual gifts tend to give up more easily when challenged, suffer more emotionally when they fail, and avoid taking risks when they perceive there is a chance their genius could fail them.

As Dweck puts it:

Teachers should focus on students' efforts and not on their abilities. When students succeed, teachers should praise their efforts or their strategies, not their intelligence.

I would assert that this is not only true for intelligence, but also for anything that could be construed as “innate,” like beauty, athleticism, or artistic ability. Effort is where praise is best applied because unlike inherent traits, it is something a child can actually control. In Dweck’s study, the children who were praised for their effort rather than intelligence were far more likely to persevere, try new things, and be less hard on themselves when they failed.

But what about self-esteem? How do we help our children build that without praising them?

Researchers at Florida State University have concluded:

. . . it is more likely that good performance leads to high self-esteem rather than the other way around . . . (T)he researchers found that efforts to boost self-esteem have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive.
In other words, self-esteem is not built though hollow praise, but rather from mastering skills, which can only be done through experience and hard work. We help our children build confidence by giving them the opportunities to try, try, try again. Encouragement, not praise is our greatest tool.

North Seattle Community College Instructor Tom Drummond takes it one step further. He recommends avoiding praise altogether unless it is absolutely genuine, claiming that children, even very young ones, know the difference between sincere and insincere praise. He asserts that an endless barrage of “Good jobs!” teaches children to seek external validation rather than looking into themselves for motivation. Instead, he advises teachers and parents to concentrate on observable facts about a child’s activities.

Instead of, “What a beautiful red circle!” one might simply say, “You used a red crayon to draw a circle.”

Instead of, “You’re a terrific jumper!” one might say, “You’re jumping very high.”

Instead of, “You’re so smart!” one might say, “You worked hard at that.”

In the end, it seems to me that this is really the most important gift we can give to our children: the capacity to continue to strive even when things are difficult. And ultimately that can only come from within.

So now you’re at the end of this post. “Good job! You’re so smart!”

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Mindy Lehrman Cameron said...

When my eldest child was very young, I must have read Tom Drummond. It made sense that a child would look and work for praise if it was lavished upon her too easily. So, I was determined to follow his advice. One day, my toddler was painting an exuberant blue painting. Normally, I would have said "That is GORGEOUS!" It was, really. Instead, I tried out "That is very blue." But it came out "WOW. THAT IS VERY BLUE!!!!!!" She probably heard "THAT IS GORGEOUS!". After all, that is what I meant.

Teacher Tom said...

Ha! That's my experience too, Mindy. At least half the time when I make an observation like that, kids answer, "Thank you."

Being noticed is praise enough, I guess.

Admin said...

This is an interesting post. Especially since I'll be having a child soon and all I've been thinking is how I can be a good day.

Thanks for this post!

Eternal Lizdom said...

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller- authors and speakers regarding communication with children and the pwoer of the words we choose- have written about this as well. It stuck with me! It's so easy to fall into a generic "Good job!" And much more of a challenge to give a descriptive compliment instead of generic praise.