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. That was an interesting read. I am really not sure how I stand on this topic. While I recognize the need to encourage and motivate your kids, I was not given much encouragement past the “you have potential.” The fault was that I had a younger sister who made far better grades than me, primarily due to my ADHD/ADD which kept me from conquering anything I felt was even the slightest bit “boring.” I imagine that if I had been told that I was “smart” more often… it might have helped. I can’t imagine it would have hurt. Instead my main motivators were being told that “if I failed, it was my fault. If I want a good job, money, and a family I have to work for myself to get those things. No one is going to do the work for me.” Those were hard lessons, the first time your mom told you “I won’t help you with that paper, do it yourself.” Those were lessons that I know I needed. I have seen the side effects of being “coodled” too much and how that hinders a person’s growth. This is more in regards to teenagers, not younger children like your son. At the age of your son he needs all the encouragement in the world and to be told he can conquer the world if he wishes… that is of course my opinion, but I wish someone had told me that. Instead it was “expected” I would be a doctor… a lawyer, or something that my family could be proud of. How much disappointment was felt when I dropped out of college and enlisted as a soldier? One cannot measure that because most of that disappointment was felt by myself, directed at myself, by me. That is where I think an individually really realizes their true potential, not really from what others say or do (although again this statement has nothing to do with the study presented here and also probably is associated with a certain age group) but instead from what they accomplish on their own because of their own self-motivation. I am pretty tired, hopefully that made sense. 🙂

    • Have the studies affected the way you want to encourage your girls hereon, OM, if it changes things? How did you feel from the implicit and explicit feedback you got growing up? You said in the interview that you did have confidence in some areas, growing up. Seems you were, in fact, urged to greater effort as the article talks about. But as I said to Shelly (below), kids pick up a lot more than words in the home. (She had some thoughts on coddling, btw.) I could feasibly imagine giving my son a version of what you were told, that if he wants “a good job, money, and a family [he] has to work for himself to get those things. No one is going to do the work for me.” But there’s context, right? The things that drive a parent to say anything.

      Your experiences and ambivalent thoughts actually are ones that occurred to me at the time of posting. We have parents who praise lavishly and then we have plenty on the other end of the spectrum. Many a conquerer has had to dig himself out of apathy or opposition in the home – the self-motivation you speak of, calling for steroid fuel; I agree, it sure would’ve helped to hear now and again that they’re smart. So much of all this has to do with how we forge our identity, even with someone growing up hearing she’s beautiful. A premium is placed on something for which we can take no credit. Add to the recipe human inclination to define our worth by what earns attention. The product: the kids who tie up their worth to their perceived intelligence end up being all about maintenance of that image, and fear challenges to that perception. When parents focus on sweat equity in a loving way that inspires courage and hope, they show their little ones how to build and prop up that ladder to the open sky.

      • I think encouragement is a great thing and parents should do all they can to motivate their kids. I know many parents don’t feel up to that challenge or are busy trying to just feed their kids, so it is good that these articles are written and that they make us stop and contemplate for a second. 🙂

  2. It’s odd to me that we try to encourage our children in ways that would not and did not work for us…. seems a kind of failure on our part in wishing to do the best for them and make them more than we were/are.

    In truth no one is better than they think they are. The trick is to get them to think there is no reason that they cannot achieve… and put no pressure on them _to_ achieve. Whether they conquer the world or not is not our choice. We can only try to give them the tools they will need to get to that point.

    Success, such as it is, often enough is not found because we are told we can… but because we are told we cannot or we forgot to think about whether we can achieve it or not. You can teach a 5 year old complex math with afternoon snacks though they won’t know you did. The concepts of figuring things out are simple enough for even 5 year olds. Whether they use it for furtherance is their option. When a child is given a choice, more often than not they will choose the good options.

    There is no encouragement more powerful than accomplishment. This is borne out in the tales of Hercules. Each task harder than the previous yet with more accomplishment comes more success and more confidence. Failure is the price of learning. Edison failed 10,000 times before finding a light that worked right. Failure is not defeat, and that is what is wrong with our current education system. When you first pick up a guitar you will be a failure of a rock star for a long time… some of our greatest histories ended in utter failure. Focus on accomplishment, not potential or failure.Ask yourself, what did your 6 year old accomplish today? Only then will you know the value and measure of growth.

    • Thank you for your time here. Rich thoughts.

      “There is no encouragement more powerful than accomplishment.” Which is what the studies bore out, that as we challenge the mind, it makes deeper neurological inroads so that ability gives birth to ability. Thank you for the follow and for joining the Conversation,

  3. Every week, a group of special needs children help out with a gardening project on church, in comparison with others they are not ‘smart’ what they are is great ‘triers’ who do their utmost to do their best… They have a hard difficult road in front of them … And what is a measure of growth for them? Sometimes it is that what is lacking for educators is proper discernment, walking in the ‘slow’ lane teaches us that….

    • Bah! I only now saw your comment! Comments can get lost, tucked behind others’ in my gmail. Sorry. In the future, ask me if I’ve recv’d word if you don’t hear back because I always get back to readers. Thank you for taking the time on my blog. Absolutely: every student has his own curve. That is beautiful that those children do what they do with such industry and dedication. =)

  4. Beautiful post. When I was in high school, my father taught me that perseverance was a virtue that would surpass all natural talents. He was right, it appears, and it was a valuable lesson.

    Instilling in a child a love of learning and the fun of a challenge is a wonderful thing. I suspect that too often a parent’s unconscious emotional needs or feelings of inadequacy come into play. If one loves their children unconditionally, then we should have no preferences as to their status (Ph.D. or otherwise) in life so long as they grow to be emotionally well adjusted, self sufficient, and decent and loving individuals.

  5. A great read and it really gets you thinking. I don’t know if I agree with everything in the article but what I definitely agree with, is how parents talk to their children will shape how they feel about themselves.
    I was told I was smart and my parents encouraged me to learn but they didn’t punish me when I tried my best and didn’t succeed.
    My parents didn’t know how to deal with the baby boy they had after me and as my brother grew up and was not as quick at learning as I had been they apologized for him and helped him out.
    Fast forward to today and I am a mom of a 3 year old, married 20+ years, good job and a good level head on my shoulders. Did my parents raise a genius, unfortunately not, but I am the best “me” there is.
    My brother, you know the one who was coddled, well he has five children from four different people, divorced twice, and working his butt off just to survive. My parents did not do him any favors by coddling him. Maybe if they had told him a couple times, “you can do this” he might be a different man. But no, they told him, “Buddy, you are going to have to work hard if you ever want something.” Well their prophecy came true because that is what they pushed on him. You are not smart enough so manual labor will have to be the job for you.
    It is always strikingly odd to me that my parents could raise us up SO DIFFERENTLY from each other.

    • HUH. There is no sure prescript, right, Shelly? Kids also respond differently to the same treatment. It’s not what we say – “Buddy, you are going to have to work hard if you ever want something. – but how we say it.

      Thinking of it some more…I believe it did me more good, or as much, to grow up with the affirmation from my parents, than if I hadn’t had it. Meaning, there’s something to be said for my personality and the fears that I tended toward, which I was going to be responsible for no matter what. But perhaps what we learn in marriage applies in youth as well: presentation and emphasis matter. I suppose it’s a question of WHY your brother felt he was going to have to work hard in life. Parents communicate so much more than words, esp where more than one child is concerned because comparison is inevitable. My younger brother felt a whole lot differently than his self-possessed sister growing up. He didn’t feel he measured up – bc he didn’t, in my parents’ eyes. They expressed love, but not quite the faith in his abilities. And it’s affected him his whole life. And no, I don’t believe he sees himself a success.

      Btw, my son’s name is Tennyson. =)

      • Very nice name! 🙂

        Yes, that seems similar to how my parents treated my brother. They loved him completely but always measured him against me and I was admittedly an overachiever. Poor kid never had a chance.

        But, I try to tell him now that it is not what happened as a kid, he is a 35 year old man and it is his responsibility, and right, to be the person he wants to be.

        He is only limited by his own belief in himself.

      • I agree, Shelly! I have felt just as you told him – that at his age (they’re pretty much peers, too), he needs to get out of the past and pull it together. Mostly, emotionally.

        Feel free to send me your blog link. I’m not able to connect into it. Diana

      • When i couldn’t reach your blog after writing you, I thought shoot, I’d have access if she followed LOL! Thanks for the follow. I have to get back to Tennyson. Back-logged on reader response (commenters are first in line)…will visit when I can, today or tmrw.

  6. very interesting! as parents, my husband and i tend to put more emphasis on work habits and efforts. i don’t think it’s as important to always get good marks as it is to know the value of working hard and putting in a solid effort. in the long run, this is a very valuable tool for future obstacles. from my experience so far, it seems that the good marks can be seen as a positive by-product of working hard.

    • Love it, Shythom. Right, industry and tenacity will bear us through the rest of life. We know grades don’t do a whole lot for us once we start building our life as adults. Your kids are blessed for their wise parents.

  7. Thorough and well balanced presentation on the concept. I used 2 approaches to help kids at least have some degree of confidence in 33 years high school teacher . The “regular” level was composed of teens 2-5 years below grade level in reading. Most teachers just gave the tests and recorded the F grades. I bought into “alternative assessment”. I had some draw and illustrate their history lesson and gave at least Cs for the effort and As and Bs for outstanding work which I measured by art ability or amount of time spent in construction. It made kids feel like they could succeed at something and that at least whetted their appetite for trying to read or at least not being afraid to make an attempt. Another approach I used was “less is more” which means instead of testing on a whole chapter, let them intensely analyze just three page of chapter giving open book tests. There was some success. Then took it to the next level and told them the three questions I would ask on the test ahead of time. Success increased and also taught them study skills. After a while one can conclude that this group is just as smart as the smart kids but just need a little more direction and at first designing things they can do instead of recording the Fs like the other teachers. Teaching subject material is much less important than teaching how to learn and how to apply oneself with the abilities they may have to accomplish at least something. I had 17 years olds that struggled with a third grade reader and that did no know all of the alphabet.

    • Carl, what a dedicated teacher you were. As a “former colleague,” I know it would’ve been a lot less work for you to do as your cohorts did. I love how you axed away at their FEAR (this cripples us from a lot, too, doesn’t it?) and then made it manageable for them. I thoroughly appreciate the reminder:
      “Teaching subject material is much less important than teaching how to learn and how to apply oneself with the abilities they may have to accomplish at least something.” I’ve said this in the article on achievement I’ve had out this summer in a homeschool magz. Thanks for joining us here.

  8. I am fascinated by this article. I have a sister who is home schooling and think that this is an excellent read for her….and me! thanks for sharing it. Your posts are always so well thought out and challenging. I do think that “failure to fail” is a problem in our education system, experience is the BEST teacher..the article sums it up best…..”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”…

  9. I read the original New York Magazine article when it came out and I want to thank you for adding a well-thought out perspective. I, too, went through a crisis of confidence leaving college, but as you said, having good habits and real accomplishments in the past can inspire you to move forward.

    • Thanks, Maggie. I got to it: the question is just how those highest achievers grew confidence from the earliest years. Success begets success but how did they start out on the promising track? From praise for intellect or diligence? Though the studies I named here were able to isolate these two factors from each other, I have been discussing in the comments the realism that it’s not always a neat divide. Sure, it helps to hear one is smart. But whatever else we grow up hearing and where the emphasis is laid end up really affecting us.

      And thank you for the follow. Btw, the spinning plates that come crashing you wrote of are the understory to the st ru gg ling artist poem you liked.

  10. this post is interesting, but having raised two daughters and now our son, we did the praise thing with good grades and then if a bad grade came up we asked them if it was a challenge to complete or if they were struggling with a certain topic, never came down on them for bad grade just pointed out we knew they could do better, and they did. Our one daughter is an accomplished graphic designer and our other daughter is a teacher…our son is 13 so we will see where his learning takes him…he does struggle more than our daughters but its usually a motivation thing more than he can’t do the work. He asks why he has to do the same thing over and over…I believe he is smarter than he lets on….it was interesting to see that fail to fail case study thanks for putting your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, GChick. Praise for good grades can come in the form of praise for intellect or for effort, though the first is strongly implied even when not made explicit. That matter of motivation is something to really work with, huh? That’s the million-dollar question. How to motivate. I go into it from a deeper, theological angle in the article I’ve had out in a Christian magazine this summer. Daniel studied so hard and well, captive in pagan Babylon, to the point of landing on the King’s radar. He mastered the secular literature of that nation. So much to say. I really have to post that article one of these days.

      • would love to see that article, as for his motivation being 13 its the chance to go hunting with his dad, and for now that will work, until he gets older then we find something else 🙂

      • The hunting is wonderful and special. But we’re speaking of internal motivation. I appreciate the interest and support. I had planned to ask my personal web guy – the one who set me up on WPress – to help me load a new page on the blog – of my articles. My second – the impact of technology on learning – is out now as well. Thanks very much for your follow from my early days, GC. My next post is on my blogging milestone. Enough said.

      • The hunting is wonderful and special. But we’re speaking of internal motivation. I appreciate the interest and support; other bloggers have asked for the article, too. I had planned to ask my personal web guy – the one who set me up on WPress – to help me load a new page on the blog – of my articles. My second – the impact of technology on learning – is out now as well. Thanks very much for your follow from my early days, GC. My next post is on my blogging milestone. Enough said. 😉

  11. Ok first this is a great post and this was me!!! Totally, I was tested for my aptitude in 2 grade and was labeled at that time gifted which threw a label on me and made me nervous for my whole school career. It’s amazing how that one word haunted my existence. I so didn’t want to be gifted because it meant I had a standard to uphold, and would they take the label away once they really knew how ungifted I really was? Also, why should someone in a gifted program get preferential treatment over other kids in school? How is that right? Wow, that was such a burden on me as a kid, and I decided to under achieve. Good post!!! Second, I wrote a review on Rush.

    • Shz, you remind me of the Pandora’s Box of Gifted and Talented education, which I oversaw and taught in, in my other life. There are pros and cons to tracking, as with anything in education where such large numbers of students are involved. I appreciate your pointing out the burden it was to feel you had to live up to expectations and a label.

  12. That’s a wonderful post. I’ve never thought a constant rain of “You’re so great.” on children made them feel good. They can look around, even at a young age, and realize they haven’t done anything worth praise. Better to do what you suggest at the end of the post. Praise a person for effort, for the number of sentences written, for the improvement in their spelling. Those are tangible and can be seen by everyone.

    Best of luck with your writing.

  13. This post will help this too-likely-to-praise lady think twice! Familiar with studies suggesting specific feedback is more helpful than vague atta-boys, yet steeped in habits of “great job,” “amazing,” and “you’re wonderful,” I think I need to read this every day.

      • Sure. My natural daughter is 40! Step-daughters, 22 and 20. Grands 18, 16, 3.5. Most of “my” kids are children I treat as a pediatric occupational therapist, and their families. The 3.5 year old lives with us and I do most of her parenting–long story there.

      • Now, no need for flattery! It was a good day, i was 55 there, am 56 now. Being a young mom I was always reading up on what to do, but still made plenty of mistakes, just like we all do. God blesses continued effort, yes?

      • Well, what sets apart my Christian faith from the rest is His grace. The good news is we DON’T measure up. THAT’s why HE is so good. His grace sustains us. My article on achievement – out this summer in Home School Enrichmt magz – tackled the meaning of achvmt from a deep theological angle. For Christians, it is a wild defining matter, this grace. Because we don’t earn God’s favor. And we realize His grace makes up for all our shortcomings in the other areas, too. But what I’ve been tracking in the current series is in large the question of persistence. You are awesome to have raised all those kids…and going strong, Joan.

      • Grace is the reason! I am a grateful recipient, and willing to share it. I would love to read your article (congratulations!). . . Is it electronic or print only?

  14. It’s always a little embarrassing to come so late to the party, but this is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I have to jump in. I grew up in a small town, and I got labeled ‘smart’ pretty early on. On one hand, I could understand; OTOH, I felt like a fraud, too, because I had the ability or curse of knowing how much more there was that I didn’t know.

    And I’ve read that this sense of fraud is fairly common for ‘smart’ people, since things come easily for them, they don’t believe they expended any energy to ‘get it’, so how hard could it be?

    The other thing is that I’ve had the fortune to come at this topic both both and academic and an athletic. It’s similar for a gifted athlete: it’s so easy for them, so how hard can it be? The benefit of having the athletic perspective is that the challenges from other gifted performers come faster, and are a lot more obvious and more easily judged. In short, the competitive nature of athletics creates a much harsher environment. I believe the insights from being a jock transfer to being a brain.

    What I realized later was that I had no belief in my capabilities as an athlete, so while I worked hard, I never had the confidence to really put out the 100% effort that was needed to separate me from the rest. I had enough talent to be good, but not enough confidence to be really good.

    Academics was sort of the opposite: I had the confidence, which led me to be a bit lazy. Then when I hit university and ran into real competition, it was a shock, and I’m not sure whether I ever recovered.

    What I got from all of this is that persistence is a much bigger advantage than sheer talent. And there are plenty of cliches on this: nothing more common than the genius who never realized his potential; Edison’s quip that genius is 95% perspiration, etc. But the problem is that too few people will ever get to the point of applying themselves to that 100% level unless they ultimately have the confidence to believe they can succeed.

    So, the trick is to get kids to be persistent, even when they are overmatched. And to do that, they have to have the belief that they can do it, which is where praise and self-esteem come in. But in order to build the mental toughness to persist, it’s not a bad thing for them to fail (or not come in first, which can pretty much be the same thing) fairly early in life. I would put 10 (plus or minus) as a good point for this. If the kid has the confidence, but then falls a bit short, this can be a very valuable lesson. This is why a bigger school can be a good thing: there’s more competition. I went to a small school, in a small town, and it didn’t take much to stand out. And what’s the line from “New York, New York”? “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere”.

    The upshot I guess is that this is like so many things, it’s finding that balance between confidence and grit. But given the two, I think grit will win most of the time.

    But the real lesson is the cultivation of spiritual values, where kids realize that “winning” or “succeeding” aren’t really the most important thing in life. That’s the sort of kid I hope I’m raising.

    • James, it’s never too late. =) Glad to have you here. My latest post explains why I couldn’t respond sooner.

      Love your insights and I value your experiences. Can you clarify? “the challenges from other gifted performers come faster, and are a lot more obvious and more easily judged.”

      Hmm….interesting that confidence (lack of) held you back in athletics but on the flip side rendered you complacent in academics. So what would’ve motivated yOu to your potential? You have the ideals down but seem to have resisted them.

      I unpack your closing thoughts in a magz article I’ve had out this summer, The Biblical Perspective of Achievement. I’ve created the page for it on top of the blog. Just fighting for TiMe to post it.

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  16. OMG he’s memorised al those facts?? !! I don’t know if I’ve remembered that many facts in my whole life. Awesome indeed.

    What you say re self esteem, confidence: so true.

    • Actually, he memorized a lot more. Jaws drop when adults hear him go. But I didn’t want to sound boastful, and stuck to the conservative estimate of what kids using this homeschool model across the globe have learned the last 2 months. I never knew the rivers, mountains, peninsulas (Iberian, Appenine…) of Europe…until now!

  17. I think the problem is that we don’t tell our kids the truth. When my kids try something new, I avoid saying that they’re good at it. I say, “You seem to really enjoy that.” When they are actually good at something, though, I tell them. Telling them they’re something they aren’t does them a disservice. At the same time, not telling them what they can actually do doesn’t validate who they are. I think a healthy knowledge of what your strengths and weaknesses are is the key to being realistic about what you can do. Still, when you have a racehorse, you have to let it run.

    • Great input, Jackie. How about we teach them – when they’re old enough to understand – that their worth does not lie in what they can or cannot do, and that diligence will take them farther than they can imagine? The article I referenced brought to question who really are the racehorses, though I absolutely agree with the angle you forged your analogy from. The kids who weren’t labeled smart ended up being the ones to take the bull by the horn and even succeeding. Thanks for your thoughtful time.

  18. I wish I’d had this information 25 years ago. My oldest son has a very high IQ and was praised for his intelligence by his teachers and me. He now feels he has to be the smartest one around, know everything, and gets very frustrated if and endeavor doesn’t work out. I hate to admit it, but I’m sort of the say way. Your post makes complete sense.

  19. Fascinating insightful understanding of the human/spiritual entwining needs for the soul’s soaring! I wasn’t necessarily encouraged since I was supposed to die at 14; so, I became a self motivated person. Indeed, children need that whispering voice that keeps them WANTING to jump out of their nest & stretch their chin upward & risk a few bruises! Wonderful ! Blessings dear~ Faithfully Debbie

    • Debbie, you are such an inspiration. I know the depths and dark you have made it through have only added beauty and force to your written words. Love your thoughts on children and growth. Thanks for reading. Love, Diana

  20. Really interesting post. Praise is motivating for most people–if it’s sincere, if you have a positive relationship with the person giving the praise, if it is specific, and if it’s for behaviours that are the ones the praiser is trying to encourage. But it will still feel coercive and manipulative if it is overdone, and praise for who you are is usually a trap–like being praised for being intelligent. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t from time to time reflect back to others how you see them. If someone repeatedly impresses you with their insightfulness or their integrity or their thoughtfulness, then it makes sense ot mention that, in the same way you might admire someone’s hair style or their beautiful eyes. But that’s different. It isn’t done to motivate (and won’t be motivating). It just says, “I see you and I like you.”

  21. I should probably also mention that praise of the person often indicates what you think a particular personal quality means: in the study, children were told they were intelligent for doing something correctly, which meant later they were afraid to make mistakes. The test suggested the researchers saw intelligence as an ability to do things correctly (and probably quickly) without making mistakes. However, if you tell someone they are intelligent after doing something other than that–say, considering a question carefully or in great depth, then they may respond quite differently. Then, they can continue to feel intelligent so long as they continue to think deeply about things. So, it’s worth looking at your own assumptions about personal qualities. What does it mean to be “smart”? What does it mean to be “kind”? Because these beliefs will come through in your praise.

    • Thanks for taking the time with the post and reflections, Ashana. And of course the follow.

      I really appreciate your follow-up thoughts, the distinction you draw between the contexts we set our commendation.

      “If someone repeatedly impresses you with their insightfulness or their integrity or their thoughtfulness, then it makes sense ot mention that, in the same way you might admire someone’s hair style or their beautiful eyes. But that’s different. It isn’t done to motivate (and won’t be motivating). It just says, ‘I see you and I like you.'”

      Praise of appearance is something different altogether, though I did bring up in the comments to other readers that we can certainly tie our identity to anything we hear (brains, looks….). You say a lot of things that echo the original article. It IS important and valuable to know how others see us. But we ought always remember our place in the world. We will always have much to improve.

  22. An excellent post. How refreshing to read that the Emperor of Self Esteem has no clothes. By all means evaluate someone for their specific actions or beliefs but evaluating someone for being a specific kind of person (good, bad, lacking self-esteem) is a recipe for depression. We are all fallible creatures so occasionally we all slip up but that just means we slipped up. To tell someone that they must have self-esteem, or that they must be good, just encourages them to feel depressed when they don’t feel they have self-esteem or are good people. It makes no sense to evaluate a whole person as opposed to the specific actions and beliefs that constitute that person’s life.

    • I appreciate your putting your finger on not forcing kids to swallow a perception they don’t feel (“I am wonderful. I am invincible”), MG. How about we talk through the disappointments, the hopes? Teach them the value of and the need for industry, for building the life they dream?

  23. Very interesting. It bore out in my life. I was a “smart” child but had (and still have) a fear of failure. Everything became magnified at middle-age when menopause caused me to lose my natural intelligence (forgetfulness, etc.). Without feeling “smart” anymore, I felt I had nothing going for me…

    • As I said in some of the comments, yes, it is human nature to tie up our self-worth in the praise we hear. It’s really a very rough (long) season for many women. The emotional part of it alone is hard, from what I’ve seen of my mother. Thank you so much for your time here! Best to you.

  24. Very interesting! I have noticed that most people on WordPress are aiming to write science journals/books (and this is not a bad thing if they want to write medical doctor’s , scientists, etc., journals/books). I like the sentence, “the brain is a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.” That is an image that I can sink my teeth into. And, your son is adorable.

    • Well, look who made my ace list, complimenting my boy like that he he. Can you clarify why you mention the science writing WPers are doing? And to say most are is quite a claim. =) Thanks for reading.

  25. Some parents don’t have much of benchmark for their child’s natural strengths…meaning if they are brilliant or very smart, they have nothing else to measure and except themselves: if they have not completed high school that is tough. My mother finished Gr. 10 and father gr. 12 equivalent prior to Communist takeover in 1940’s.

    Nevertheless, a child should be praised for their natural good skill –for instance I am artistically inclined..I loved writing poetry and doing art nearly my whole life. But I don’t think my parents would have understood my gift had I not won some local contests as a teen. Anyway these skills in their eyes wasn’t valued as high because it wouldn’t net a reliable job with reliable pay.

    I believe my parents didn’t praise us enough..just abit more would have been helpful.

    I totally agree that constantly praising a child for mediocre performance when you know they have not tried hard or can do better, does not help them. Then they don’t know what they are naturally good at.

    Postscript: I was always pleased my parents praised for my natural sense of colour, for photographing the family well or whipping off a card with Western calligraphy. Yes, it amazing how much we want a parent to see the natural gift(s) we have and at least, focus on that if nothing else.

    • Yes, Jean, as you elaborate at the end, specific feedback is what gives kids (even adults) direction and lends productive encouragement. As I discussed with some bloggers in the comments, we do have the other end of the spectrum where parents don’t affirm their kids enough. The article was addressing a particular population of parents and kids, as well as the words we actually use with the littles. I appreciate your time. =) Diana

  26. I confess I haven’t read all of your blog post or any of the comments. but I’ve read the article and have Dweck’s book Mindset. I think you would have loved to attend the World Conference for Gifted and Talented Children. I went last August when they held it in Kentucky. It was supposed to be held in New Zealand, but at the last minute it had to be moved to KY. I was so lucky to be able to attend.

    I heard a lot of great talks from many different voices in the field of gifted education and this year’s focus was on creativity how do you inspire and motivate creativity.

    The thing of it is, I’m not so sure we have to inspire it as much as we have to protect what’s already there. Children are naturally creative and natural scientists, exploring their worlds until the world says, “no – don’t do it that way”.

    Have you seen any of the TED talks regarding Do schools kill creativity or about changing educational paradigms?

    something you’d like to read, if you don’t know about either…

    I met James T. Webb and talked to him privately. I think he’s done a wonderful job of supporting the social-emotional needs of the individuals with high potential…

    I’ve much more to say…but I wanted to share this for now…

    • It’s funny. I thought of this post when you talked of the gifted earlier today, and as I read on in your comment here, I was going to ask if you heard Robinson. =) I had that youtube up on my sidebar most of last year. =) I headed up the elem Gifted n Talented Edu program – in my other life.

  27. Wow — I have often wondered why I made the choices I did in high school and college, and this theory certainly provides a possible answer. I was always told I was smart; was always in the “smart kids” reading group in school. Once I got to high school and was placed in advanced classes, and I struggled in one of them to get a B, I decided the advanced math and science classes were not for me. Those were not my strong subjects, and I didn’t want to mess up my GPA!

    That thinking continued in college. I majored in English because it’s what I got good grades in. Other subjects that I’d never been exposed to — business, interior design, art, etc. — I didn’t even attempt, because again, I didn’t want to risk my GPA.

    As a result, I do feel strongly that kids need to be taught things like what careers are available, and what it takes in terms of education to be able to pursue them. If I’d had some direction, I think I could have easily overcome that fear of failure. All it would have taken was an adult saying, “It’s better for you to take the class, get a B and lower your GPA. It will open up more opportunities for you.”

    • Hi Lawri, I appreciate your sharing your story. This post was sandwiched in a series exploring GREATNESS, attributes of people who pursue excellence in diverse areas of life. People who push past mental road blocks and extend their frontier. Very interesting, isn’t it? Fear lies behind so much of what we do — and don’t.

  28. Hello Diana. What a great article. Unfortunately I had a difficult upbringing and was full of low self-esteem from a young age. My father was an extreme alcoholic and I lived in fear of him. He was verbally abusive and always put me down. Thanks to God, I’m over that. My worries now-a-day are for my own son, being that he has Asperger’s syndrome, which easily mimics ADHD. His entire last year at school was a real challenge and often didn’t stay in his seat while the teacher was trying to give her class. It has been extremely stressful for me, as his hyper (and very impatient) mother, living in north-east Brazil, where they are 40 years behind on dealing with issues of autism and people on the autism spectrum and inclusion within schools. Doing homework with him and teaching him to read in English (which, of course, is all on me) has definitely given me some grey hairs. I find myself wishing that I could see the type of progress as you have seen with your son. My daughter is a whole other story. It’s like night and day between the two of them. My daughter I could easily homeschool in a heartbeat. She retains information like there’s no tomorrow and is eager and willing to learn. At any rate, I will not give up on Him. My hope and prayer is that I will successfully guide him along and not damage his self-esteem.

    • Staci, You do have it tough, but I am CONFIDENT your investment in your dear boy will bear rich rewards. You will reap what you sow. Proverbs assures us the hardworking farmer will enjoy his firstfruits. And the results will look different for each of your children, of course. I’m sure the internet also will help fastforward you to the postmodern developments in Aspg. Just keep letting your precious son know he is made in God’s image and his worth comes not from anything he achieves but what Christ has achieved on his behalf. And that he is to get on with the business of enjoying the process of seeing God in the way He’s ordered the world (math), spoken life into all things (via language), that history is His Story, etc.

      Love, me

  29. It is so important to praise kids for the things they do and not the things they are. I hate it when my fellow educators take some little girl aside and tell her how pretty she is, or when they tell some 6 year old boy that he’s a genius. While these things are true, they are also not things the kids can change. If something can’t change, what’s the point of focusing on it?

    “That (specific thing) you did was super smart!” is a million times more valuable than “you are so naturally intelligent.”

    • Yep. I’ve said just that, in reply to other comments. We end up putting our sense of worth on things we can take no credit for. And when those attributes start failing us (no longer so pretty, young, not so smart in a vast collegiate sea of brilliant students), we start flailing. I wouldn’t even say the “thing you did was so smart” but well done. Thanks for your time. =)

  30. Pingback: Response to “Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem” | Hope, Honor, and Happiness

  31. You were right, I did find it interesting. I very much agree with the focus of this piece, the idea that the process is almost as important as the end. However, the end is still important. My opinion is that we can use the successes to reinforce the processes and efforts put forth.

    For instance, you can praise the achievement with an added statement something like “see what you can do when you do your best?” or “aren’t you glad that you kept working at the problem until you figured it out?”.

    While it would be foolish to deny the importance of the end result, the planning and effort cannot be forgotten.

    Personally, I found my way through school very easy. I applied myself, got good grades very easily, and generally enjoyed school. I actually didn’t have much in the way of homework until I reached college. This made the out of class assignments and time-consuming research a real struggle for me. I personally wish that there had been more to push me when I was in grade school and high school. Fortunately, my parents always pushed me for my best effort, so I gradually re-learned some of the things I had missed.

    I’ve told my sons many times that they won’t always be the best in their class and that there will probably always be someone who can run faster, hit farther, jump higher, spell better, etc. I have also told them that the one thing they can control is effort. I tell them to do their best to make sure that no one puts forth more effort than they do. I’ve told them frequently that all I ask for is their best effort.

    • I’m down with everything you’ve said. On this note, though

      “I tell them to do their best to make sure that no one puts forth more effort than they do.”

      Well, that’s hard to gauge, isn’t it? =)

      I really like the questions you suggest we can pose to highlight what effort can accomplish.

      High five, Dave. Thx for the thoughtful read.

      • I remember my Dad telling me about a gym teacher he once had. The teacher was known for being strict and hard.
        According to Dad, there was only one individual who ever got an A+ in this teachers gym class. He was a fellow who was overweight and slightly mentally challenged. However, he left no question that he had done his very best, struggling, sweating, grunting and straining in a heroic effort which often left his achievements far below those of the rest of the class.

        I realize that it is sometimes hard for me to tell how much effort someone else puts forth. Sometimes effort is obvious, sometimes it is masked. However, I still tell my sons to strive for maximum effort and to put forth not just enough, but the best that they can do.

  32. “the brain is a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.” Generally that’s true but our capacity to learn is also affected by our environmental conditioning and life practices like adequate rest and diet. Villagers eaten up by hook worm in underdeveloped countries of the world are disadvantaged that way.

  33. I read about the study you mentioned last year sometime, and it quite changed the way I praise my boys now. I give a lot more focus to their efforts or their line of thinking rather than any innate ability. Just as described, I have noticed that they are much more forgiving of their own failures now, and are quite happy to say ‘I can’t do this and I need more practice’ rather than ‘This is too hard and I’m not doing it.’

    • “Just as described, I have noticed that they are much more forgiving of their own failures now, and are quite happy to say ‘I can’t do this and I need more practice’ rather than ‘This is too hard and I’m not doing it.’”

      LOVE it. Thanks so much for dropping in with this precious bit of wisdom and experience.


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  35. i just read this, from the link you put on a post. Being someone in a constant struggle with a low self esteem, I understand how being labelled “smart” feels. Over the years, I wouldn’t say my academic performance(s) has been impressive, but the pressure to succeed has always been, (is even still) there. And yes, the fear that i wouldn’t live up to the name lovingly given me by Mother. (She calls me professor) has been with me. Now in graduate school, the fear still remains. i just wish, we’d get rid of all the labels, and just encourage hard work, sadly, that might never happen.
    Beautiful writing as usual, you have gotten a big fan in me

  36. Pingback: Blog of the Week: Diana of A Holistic Journey « Dancing with Fireflies

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  38. Hi HW! This is the first post of yours that I’ve read and I enjoyed it very much. I found your link on Exile on Pain St. and followed it here, so I sort of popped up at an arbitrary point in your blog timeline (although at your direction). I admire the way you weave God and Faith into academics and vice versa. To me this is a natural combination that is mutually reinforcing, however there are many who do not agree.

    With respect to the article you described and discussed, I would agree whole heartedly that praise should never be a given and should only be used where it is warranted. I am frequently torn between Yoda: “Do. Or Do Not. There is no Try.” (which praises success) and the reinforcement of effort. Both seem appropriate at different times. I would like to put forth a concept to differentiate that needs some development, but I think provides the umbrella concept under which the two others exist in harmony: children should be treated by parents as God treats His children. I don’t mean literally, but if you think about it, scriptures often categorize the relationship between the Father and humans as equivalent to the relationship between parents and children: we are His children. And, as you pointed out, made in His image. So, how does God teach us? Sometimes with praise (a sense of fulfillment, rightness, contribution, etc.) and sometimes with challenges, often including failure to produce an increase in self-awareness. Perseverance seems to be rewarded as are making hard choices. Happiness is a skill to be developed. Faith is critical. It is the journey as much or more than it is the destination that is to be cherished. Unconditional Love. Encourage choice and reinforce “good” choice and discourage “bad” choice. Leadership. Development and encouragement of individual strengths. Coping mechanisms for weaknesses. Collaboration.

    Anyway, you get the gist. It has never ceased to amaze me how many academic concepts can be easily seen to reflect God’s hand. As Einstein said: “The divine reveals itself in the physical world.” Keeping that in mind, it would also stand to reason that those concepts would be the same ones we would use to maximize the development of a child. For, after all, are not our children also the children of God?

    Being a Star Trek fan, I would also suggest throwing in a dash of “Kobayashi Maru”: when you can’t win – change the rules. Ha!

    Thanks for the great post HW! You’ve made me think and follow. As a blog reader with no blog, I’m low maintenance – so lead on!

    • *Grin*

      A gem of reflections you have left at my doorstep, Paul (dstep because you’ve only just set out on the journey here). I concur with all your thoughtful points. I appreciate the emphasis on choice, which is replete in the Bible, and “Perseverance seems to be rewarded as are making hard choices.” Absolutely: we are indeed to learn of parenting from God’s own dealings with us. And so it is of no surprise or coincidence that we find the academic in the spiritual. Amen to Einstein. Hence the name of my blog A HOLISTIC Journey.

      Love the Yoda and K Maru as much as the rest. 😉

      You were considerate in letting me know how you found me, and I am grateful for the happy follow, Paul. Seems you’ve made yourself right at home with the outstanding, intelligent readership here. Thanks for the blessing today.


  39. Very thought-provoking! I had heard this before. I really should get out of the habit of telling my kids how smart they are. I was a gifted child myself, and, honestly, being classified as a smart kid never made me afraid to fail; it actually gave me the confidence to always go for that “something more.” Having said that, my parents never made a big deal out of my report card. I think a lot of kids who are afraid to fail may actually be feeling a lot of pressure from home, which is why they want to play it safe.

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