Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article that explains how praising kids for being smart often backfires, straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. She offers insights on the inverse power of praise:

A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenges.

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…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.

In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. 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 copped out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. The groups exhibited a marked difference in response. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts deflated, taking their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.

Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can controlEmphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” 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.

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation had rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. While I was praised for being smart even in diapers, I also suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember crying, asking for her forgiveness, in the face of her withering disappointment over the 98% on a test I’d brought home. It was decades later that she remorsefully revealed she’d feigned dissatisfaction to push me to my utmost.

Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure –  the devil on my shoulder – goaded me to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before every piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze, turning cold and stiff. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school, rejecting the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.”  I had set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them. Deep inside, I feared being exposed as a fraud, of not meeting the expectations I wore.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly: at 27, I visited Harvard for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture. I enjoyed meeting with a professor and sitting in on her class, although in the end, I left the the east coast for the California sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the storied institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of a principal I’d worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? When trepidation gives way, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. What had locked me in the first place was not low self-esteem but the praise over my innate ability that had followed me in my youth. Besides, that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, has been found to have no clothes on.

From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’

I had little patience for  the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation I was told in graduate school to shower my students. How can a society, let alone marriages, expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above all else? (The sun does not orbit the earth.) We all should know our inherent worth, and no child should feel unloved or unworthy because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now may see it differently, but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their sense of worth on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”

The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…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…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a biochemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers improved math scores in low-achieving students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain works like a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.

The Little Man

The Little Man

Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts in science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some, long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that provides effective encouragement : sincere, specific feedback with repeatable strategies that moves the child forward. But I find it takes some conscious reprogramming on my end to keep from juicing my son with an easy shot of dopamine that’ll make him feel like Superboy rather than remind him that he’s not dependent on a bank of brain cells that’s predetermined what he can accomplish.  “Oh, you’re so sm –, “ I choke back some days.

“Now see what happens when you don’t give up?”

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard on this blog. It’s taken me 40 years to lay down my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s no timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as a writer, standards higher than ever.

153 thoughts on “Greatness, Part 5: Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem

  1. This is powerful, it resonates for me, and is timely and I think appropos to a grandchild’s crises in school. I am emailing it to her mom.

  2. This certainly hit home for me…you were absolutely correct…praise no….encouragement yes… to get through failures yes…I will give you a bit of background here…I was bumped up a grade from 8th to 9th in Math and I hated it! I vowed never to have my kids (including two step-children I helped raise ) deal with to much separation by being “smart”… I have heard about the breakdowns of the gifted and talented… and I was not going to contribute to that…

    Fast forward to Marika ..Julia and Aly…the later being my birth daughter .. I married their father when Marika was 6 and Julia was 2 ..with Alyson being born 4 years later .. My step girls mother was in her masters program when their Dad and I got Married.. And she later took a job as an environmental hygienist on ships during the week.. Thus I was the luckiest woman alive.. I got to love these 2 precious souls every week…and she saw them on the week-ends…we became a great team…co parenting these kids …as she remarried 4 years later ..and I had Alyson..

    . (Staying close to the girls as they went to college was gift as well ) ..
    as they were 16 and 20 when I moved to Maui

    We NEVER talked about IQ..even though I think the girls found out about their IQ ‘s somewhere along the way …especially since GATE was a part of early education for the two oldest..Alyson ‘s early education was in cluster classes ..with no pulling out ..although I formed an after school program funded by go on field trips ect…. She was in regular cluster classes until high school…

    I would say that they have all had moments of feeling they could have done better… I remember a defining moment with Marika.. the oldest ..when she got her 1st B …I told her congratulations ! She looked at me kind of strange…though she did have a smile… Marika went on to go to Stanford for post graduate school and got her PHD in Economics with a Masters in Math… Now a professor at UT in Austin…

    Julia was very precocious not so much of the prevailing perfectionism her sister had…yet thought she could fit in as a red head easily into a public Hispanic high school…(her sister also went there with Hispanic looks) …she invited them into every club she could start up.. Somehow fitting into their world without them being so upset that she was raising her hand so much in class …She went on to Berkeley …getting a degree in Molecular Biology..hired right out of school by GE international …working for them for 3 years in Safety and Regulations…and at 23 years old …deciding she would go work as head of her own department (safety and Regulations) for Autodesk …being a big decision maker..and constantly coming up with new ideas

    Alyson was moving from California to Georgia (one year).. to Hawaii in her formative years…so she had no choice..yet to figure out how to fit in… She told me when she went to Seabury here in Maui…I will never be a poster child… She would say ” Why would I want my classmates to feel bad” She never attended any achievement assemblies …thinking that was made up for her school…although we went to all of them when she was younger..she was tough on herself …yet not because she felt she had to do better… She wanted to fit in more.. So placed herself in a math class that was not honors her 10th grade year.. Her teacher promptly had her test he said it was not fair to the other students she knew all the answers… I never said a word…it was not until College that Alyson decided to shine 100 percent.. By being given an opportunity to find her own path to success..she has never felt she was less than ..even when she thought all the countless math assignments were a waste if time in high school…

    She has now mastered several areas of engineering with a minor in writing…as a pioneer in her school..ambassador and president of Vanguard and women in Engineering ..bringing in all speakers and programs in…she was a mechanical engineering major and developed Mobile Apps on the side…computed for the cloud..developed drones for agriculture and fire control..loved mechatronics engineering …and I saw a You tube video on how she started and maneuvered a car with her cell phone!… To this day she thinks “because I am Mom is why I think she is amazing” …as she thinks all of this is just perfectly normal…and I say yes to that.!.

    Aly graduated May 17th taking a position with IBM at 21.. leadership and development…she was completely surprised at her graduation…her Chancellor singled her out to praise her for HER BIG HEART. ..contributions and of course her accomplishments ….as she will make a difference in this world

    I feel that I did my job by Loving them as normal kids with enormous potential..yet honored their humanness in the process … Believe me sometimes I was not sure if they would make it through what was presented to them emotionally at times… Which I may elaborate on some other time…

    Opps on this length …as I got a little carried away..hope this resonates with people out there..that no matter the talent…love is the key to it all… With many prayers …Heart to Heart Robyn

    • Amazing story. (Be sure to keep copying and pasting your comments in the future in case you lose it at the end before the publish!)

      Love this:
      “all had moments of feeling they could have done better…”

      We all need to experience this – without being crushed by our missing the mark. In the Greek, the word for sin, by the way, HAMARTIA, means missing the mark. Falling short.

      I find it interesting that you bring up Aly’s physical features alongside her desire to fit in.

      Really appreciate this:
      “I feel that I did my job by Loving them as normal kids with enormous potential..yet honored their humanness in the process …”

      The girls’ success is a loud tribute to your wisdom and devotion to their best, Robyn. Thanks so much for sharing.


      • Thank you Diana…also on the cut and paste tip as well ..I am just now learning what a pingback is as well…still have not done it yet! Heart to Heart Robyn

      • A reader lost a long comment (2 AM!) he was trying to put up on this blog and had to rewrite. Hence the tip. You’re ahead of me: took me longer to learn the pingback. =) I was clueless when I stepped out here.

  3. Just a brief follow up as I read all your comments.. Especially the video on revamping our educational system…all the girls never stopped being that 5 year old kid who could come up with 200 ideas for a paper clip…that really hit home the most…we always encouraged their own non-linear thinking…to this day they all have so many new ideas …even if they failed a thousand times they would come up with a new idea…sometimes to our exhaustion and late late nights…( by the way at 5 years old Marika was told she could not start kindergarten because she did not know her colors and was not smart enough) Ha! They all shake the norm up a bit …because they never see only the box…Their Dad wanted them to be a bit more organized…I just shut their doors as they created!! Using intuitive skills was always encourage by me as well…Heart to Heart Robyn

  4. This was enlightening to say the least. Finding the right balance between praise and encouragement is important. My son has only started school and I feel completely unequipped! I am usually torn between whether I should let him go with the flow in Kindergarten, or to push him more at home. Though on the home front, I have yet to teach him strictly and on a regular basis. How do you strike a balance? A child can grow and learn so much in these early years, and it rests solely on my shoulders whether I will nurture his brain to his maximum or not. I am so so lost here D. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that as a child I was a self-studier (if there is such a term!). My parents never taught me. I always wanted to learn and do homework on my own. I kind of expect my son to do the same. The thought of teaching him at home hasn’t quite settled in my head yet. That is really bad isn’t it? And in retrospect, such a comparison between my childhood and his, my parents and myself, is quite ridiculous.

    • Gosh, Nida. I wish I had THE answer for you. But seems this is one area in which we all have to find our own way. It is a question I often circle back to, how much to push, pull, rein in, let go. The really funny and odd thing here is that for someone so Type A as I am, a product of the intense academic milieu of NYC, my son’s education is the (only!) area I have been pretty relaxed about. I think California has influenced me a lot the last 13 yrs or so. It is so laid back here. But more so, I have come to see, appreciate, and fear the unhealthfulness of pressuring kids. What have we been doing since Adam and Eve – or the dawn of time? Kids weren’t pressed into sophisticated computer games, tantalized by a feast of educational choices, or bombarded with sensory overload (don’t get me into technology. That was my first series here last year, which made its way into a magazine as an article). They learned as God designed them to be able to learn. Naturally, working alongside parents, observing, experimenting, exploring, hearing, telling, memorizing stories. We’re so hung up – largely by our own projections of what we want to see (or show) our kids being able to achieve. I – and my best friend – share your experience of having paved our own way without our parents’ help in our learning years.

      If this helps any, boys are supposed to develop their fine coordination more slowly than girls. Where there are exceptions, of course you should encourage giftedness. But I saw my son wasn’t some amazing artist or ready to be writing at the age of four. UNLIKE some of his female peers in Sunday School. I was the only parent not to teach or push him to write his name ’til relatively late among the church moms. Odd for someone with such high standards. He was the last one to be able to write his name independently. I’m sure the Sunday School tchrs found that a bit odd of a homeschooling family. But when Tennyson was good and ready, he started writing his name EVERYWHERE LOL. All over. It was awesome. Was like he had known all along, and was just waiting for his time to be able to show it. AND he threw me in for a loop when this year he started drawing REALLY well. To the point of needing support and encouragement through art classes. Go figure. Knowledge and smarts are really relative. He just turned seven and knows hundreds of history facts high schoolers don’t know, and can tell you about World War 1 and 2 warbirds (fighter planes), identify Classical composers from their music, etc. I didn’t even speak Eng at his age. God can take someone who needed Eng as a Second Lang services and turn her into the most hard-nosed fastidious writer on WPress LOL. I’m able to relax that my son will turn out okay.

      Having said that, I struggle with guilt everyday. I can always be doing more with him. I just live the questions and do my best.

      • You are so right. There is never one answer to this. I have been thinking about all of this a lot lately. Especially since the school system in Pakistan is SO different from Canada, US etc. Pakistani and Indian mothers I have come across all show annoyance over how little homework children get over here. Or how our 4 year olds can’t even write. I never took much of it to heart because I tend to have faith in the education system here. And also because I know all the loopholes in the system back home. But as soon as summer started, a voice inside nudged me to move my butt and teach him so he is in a better position when he goes back to school. Though you are so right, ‘relaxed doesn’t mean low standards.’ Children will learn in their own time. My husband never bothers with all of this. He always tells me that we should focus on what our son is good at, or has interest in. For example he loves making tall buildings with lego. Elaborate structures that have apartments, parking and BBQ areas. haha. So if he grows up to be an architect only because of his LOVE for building, I think I’d be pretty happy. I was never that focused in terms of a profession as a child. Most children back home weren’t. But I see the change now. Many children know what they want in life. That’s great improvement I think. And the part about writing one’s name – I can so relate to that. My son doesn’t write it properly either. So I just think to myself, Do I know anyone who doesn’t know how to write his or her name? No. That sets me at ease. He will learn in his time. Wow this is a major discussion over a cup of coffee no:)?

      • I have to say I’m used to the deep talks in the coffee house here. =) But more importantly, I strongly suspect your son will turn out just fine with such a conscientious mom over him.

      • This made me laugh:). God and HIS wondrous ways:)

        “God can take someone who needed Eng as a Second Lang services and turn her into the most hard-nosed fastidious writer on WPress LOL.”

        And who knows, maybe your son will turn out to be an awesome writer AND a painter. That would be too cool:)

    • A major epiphany I had when Tennyson was about your son’s age was that relaxed didn’t mean low standards. And his thriving didn’t mean it had to come by my nail-biting. I’ve been purposeful in his education, but more relaxed than I ever dreamed I’d be. I might tighten up as he gets older.

  5. I’ve read this research before, and this was a great reminder. Thank you. I was also a gifted student that was terrified of failure. At the age of 22, I finally allowed myself to fail just so I could get past it and be more willing to pursue things that carried the risk of rejection. Great blog post. Thank you for sharing.

    • “I finally allowed myself to fail just so I could get past it and be more willing to pursue things that carried the risk of rejection.” Wow, I’m sure the hurdle proved invaluable in other areas! Even this week, I caught myself in the nick of time: “You’re so sm….You worked hard, didn’t you?” =) I appreciate the read. =)

  6. I know this post is several years old, but I’m just now running across it (didn’t know of you in 2013!). Carol Dweck spoke at my sons’ school and her book really changed my parenting for the better. I still have to check myself, but that book was life-changing . . . I was raised much like you were. I wish Dweck had been writing back then.

    • That is VERY cool that you caught her like that. Something so simple, and yet most of us parents have missed it. There is a local district here that teaches the growth mindset from the Admin down (through the tchrs to the students). I remind T that the brain is a muscle and builds smarts when you work it like any other part of your body! I’ll be mentioning Dweck’s research at the CA Homeschool Network Expo as a speaker in Sept.

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