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

A friend sent me an enlightening, provocative New York Magazine article on how praising kids for being smart often backfires and ends up 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 also shed light on the aspects of overachieving I have been exploring here: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. I will extract the key points on “the inverse power of praise,” and while I usually don’t refer readers to anything but short articles or video, this ones well worth the time.

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

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 took the cop-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. A marked difference in response lay between the groups. 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 sunk into obvious misery. Of course they took 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 rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. I was praised for being smart before the days of memory, but I also was an assiduous student who 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 the time I cried in apology when she demanded to know why I had brought home only a 98% on the test. Today, she has nothing but remorse for the years she faked pride for disappointment to push me to my uttermost.

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 with the pitchfork to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before a piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze both in temperature and mobility. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school. I rejected 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 set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them.

To describe my metamorphosis in thinking would warrant a separate post. In brief: after teaching in the public schools, I ended up consulting a Harvard professor for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture, and sat in on her doctoral class. I was 27 when I took part in that fun discussion, just before deciding on life under California’s sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the venerable institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that came about largely at the encouragement of the last principal I worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? It seems what had locked me in the first place was likely the praise over my innate ability that had attended my youth. But when trepidation gives way to boldness, 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. My uncertainties in myself did not arise from low self-esteem. I always had a strong sense of self. The article describes how that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, was 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 groaned to be told in graduate school and teacher professional training sessions to shower the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation all over my students. How a society, let alone a marriage, can expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above else confounds me. (How telling that the sun does not orbit the earth.) I absolutely believe in the inherent worth of every individual, and that 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 will differ vastly in their response to this statement of faith but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their self-esteem 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 chemical 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 produced improved math scores from low-achieving math students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain is 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 across the subjects of science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some in the form of 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 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 do make for effective encouragement: whether it’s the number of times a hockey player checked his opponent or improved concentration on a task; sincere, specific feedback that provides repeatable strategies which move one forward profitably. I’ve replaced much of the “you’re so smart” with express pleasure at effort and minilessons on the capacity of the mind.

We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. In light of the research, I find my own response to kudos on the blog this year interestingly apt. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard. After decades of reading and writing, I only now feel like a writer. Despite the modest publishings, it’s taken me 40 years to pen 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 not a 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 writer – standards higher than ever.

The Writing Process II, Part 5: The Gift of Time in Revision

If this one isn’t short and sweet, hopefully it’ll be short and sensible. I didn’t touch on this point in the first series for its plain truth, but it’s a common experience of writers that might be nice to talk about. Before publishing anything, take the good that time offers and – where at all possible – step away from your work.

Stephen King says, “With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…Your mind and imagination…have to recycle themselves.” (On Writing) But he doesn’t get into why the brain welcomes this respite in the first place.

PocketWatch2Without it, we’re too deeply IN IT. It’s the reason we’re convinced we’re in the right, glued to our own voice in an argument. No objectivity.

Mario has said, “Even though I wrote it, it is too close sometimes, OK all the time. And readers’ response tells me how I am coming across.” Kevin told the Grammar Mafia, “I do edit most of my posts. For grammar. For spelling. And then, I’ll reread the post months later and wonder how could I have said “that” so poorly. Run-ons and convoluted phrasing mostly, but not exclusively.”

That’s all of us. The distance of time, even an hour, can lend legibility to the written thought as it renews the reader and quiets the talker in us.

The Holistic Editor offers a word on healthful writing: we require balance in all areas. Writaholics of all people benefit from activity that redistributes blood and energy from the brain to the rest of our anatomy. We are physically more than the thoughts we hear and devote desk hours to, and need to nourish all the organs with the balance of movement. Enjoy some fresh air, tackle the dishes, pump those limbs, sing, dance, sleep. And return with a fresh eye to the words you were eager to print. They’ll be even better. Clearer.

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Finale

Of course we don’t feel drugged when cruising in cyberspace or playing a video game. Nor am I saying schools are not teaching history or providing solid language arts. I’m speaking of the proverbial frog in the water that’s getting unnoticeably hot. When kids go full throttle in all things virtual, it fosters a habit of the mind, affects how hospitable their brain grows to the rigors of reasoning that enables ease of articulation. Inhospitality in this case ironically makes for inefficient learning, academic ill ease. Because you just can’t get the results in some things but through the old-fashioned road of exertion. How do you build muscle? Strength? There is no shortcut for the consistency of an hour’s sweat, four times a week. The sweat is proof of progress. The body can’t fool itself. Why do we think any differently of the developing mind? It is one thing to welcome structural and organizational timesavers in teaching and even in methodology. The features of Gmail alone can help streamline teaching beautifully. I would love to learn – from fellow bloggers, especially – more ways to harness both wired and wireless power to facilitate instruction. It is a different story, though, when it comes to content and the discipline of the mind, what we expose eyes and brains to on a regular basis. Machines can’t think for us, at least in all the shades and emotional context the human brain functions. Quality books challenge the mind to hold something deep and expansive, along with sophisticated syntax and diction. We let Johnny off the hook in some tasks that require straightforward verbal and auditory attention. But I’ve always wondered to what extent we ourselves have been creating visual learners hooked on pictures that speak the 1000 words they’re becoming less capable of producing. Have we written off trained hypersensitivity to visual stimulation as a matter of learning style?

I am quite happy with my electricity and computer. And I don’t have muscle enough to survive on the prairie. For sure, technology has enhanced how broadly we communicate, relate, and learn. But I fear, at a price. The practice of waiting characterized life on the prairie. Season into season, the kids grew up hoping, anticipating, predicting things about the crop they had helped sow that was to be their very survival and nourishment. What is it that today’s youth have to wait for? Given over to machines in play and study, kids could end up paying for the efficiency we buy into with a laziness of the mind. We underestimate what our children are capable of, both the responsibilities they should bear and the skills they can apply themselves to. It is the Tiger Mom’s question I circle back to, the line I at times can’t easily make out between pushing too hard and encouraging too little.

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Part 4

Will kids accustomed to virtual magic tricks readily invite self-discipline, the handmaid of hard work? We express ourself through the click of likes and flurry of fingers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (not saying I object to your liking this post). Will the breeziness with which kids are talking online from a progressively younger age wear on their ability to articulate themselves on important matters? To frame an opinion, analysis, insight on literature, politics, faith? Navigating gizmos well does not mean you will be unable to communicate effectively. But obviously times have changed.

P1030705Life is far different today from the Prairie Days when, sun-up to sun-down, physical exertion and problem-solving called upon both young and old. Though limited schooling often gave way to marriage or a trade in the pioneer days, when children did study they did not read and write clipped thoughts. Those able to pursue an education learned proper grammar and speech, were taught to recite the history of their nation so they could understand their place in the world, joined the Great Conversation of literature. That is, students took in and engaged written works that were a complete thought. Edith Schaeffer said, “They need to love books, for books are the basis of literature, composition, history, world events, vocabulary, and everything else.”  There was an organic wholeness to the process of formal learning, of building the stamina called for in the training of the mind. Students did not have the option of flipping channels, websites, or even their own book pages every 30 seconds, dissatisfied with pictures or content that did not titillate. Rather than take the time to sit and drink in great works, more and more postmodern kids are looking to quench their thirst for visual excitement. The next hit. We don’t read LOTR and indulge our imagination anymore. We watch the epic and let the screen tell us what Middle-earth looked like. With each generation becoming literally more restless from the luxurious feast of options, how will it develop the patience needed to examine, ponder, question, argue, reason?

In his keen social commentary Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman teases out the effects of television viewing on the mind. In the briefest window of time, you can go from a news segment to a commercial to a soap opera, each presentation itself spliced plenty by dizzying action, noise, and change of scenes. The watching brain gets a string of disjointed messages that remain incoherent together. Postman asserts that the problem of television is not what we watch but that we do. I suggest that with the infinite number of channels procurable on YouTube alone now, not to mention the 3-D magnetism of so-called kids’ movies, what the mind experiences is like the discrete, disconnected, visual provocation of the TV – on amphetamines.

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Part 3

angry_birdIn my lifetime global tech advancement turned a corner and it was a sharp one. For all their benefits, the microwave, internet, multipurpose cell phone have accelerated the pace of living. When I was in elementary school, a digital Hello Kitty watch was hot stuff. Today, I sight at least 3 kids out of 5 with an iSomething in their hand. Only, they’re not the ones really holding the machine. It is the kids who are held captive by their tablet, their iPOD. As technology serves our demand for instant amusement and excitement, our dependency grows.  With the computer shrinking every year, more compact and portable, our minimachines ironically are not an accessory but a necessity. Left unchecked, the reliance can tailspin into an addiction. The South Korean government is scrambling toward another law to constrain the number of hours kids under 16 can play virtual games within a 24-hour period. The nation whose youth has been known for its academic ambitions is buckling under the weight of her children’s virtual obsessions. I can only imagine how the typical gaming brain of the Korean student has rewired. It is a product of clicking for instant gratification, not of laboring to produce something deep, meaningful, or imaginative.

As a former teacher in the public schools, I know enjoyment enables and enhances learning. But the world of video gaming has redefined fun. Our young ones are not inherently different from kids two hundred years ago. Our physical apparatus has not changed. The parenting, the environmental influences we watchdog or don’t, condition our children’s preferences. So, at least from observing my own son, it seems to me kids still can get quite a kick out of the incarnations they can summon of a cardboard box – except for the etoys readily put in front of them.

Preoccupation in the virtual sphere can redefine not only amusement but reality.  How many of us believe it’s healthy to keep lost in a world of fantasy? The transfixed gamer not only loses time and opportunity to engage the real world and people, but becomes enamored with a place that does not exist in nature and with powers he in fact does not have. The gamer enjoys the delusionary high of being able to make cool things happen quickly and easily – whenever he wants. It is the omnipotence of the Hero who’s simply changed costume every decade, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Ninja Turtles, the Incredibles: we love being able to manipulate boundaries, playing God. Where we are not careful, we could be nurturing impatience and restlessness of character and thought in our children.

Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Part 2

A friend called herself lazy in telling me she replaced her laptop with her phone because the latter finishes her word for her as she types. I’d say that’s being efficient. But it is a fuzzy line between efficiency and laziness, isn’t it? Today’s family is surrounded by machines dedicated to saving us time because we really are so busy. I, notoriously so. My husband has come to see I honestly don’t have a New York Minute. So if you offer me something to maximize my time, I’m in (unless it has too many dizzying icons). But I wonder about the aggregate impact of a tech-dependent culture on our kids’ capacity to learn. How will children who’re used to commanding entertainment and sensory incitement at the touch of a button grow up to embrace endeavors that require simple patience and dogged commitment? It’s a concern I first explored in the Tiger Mother post that I find myself revisiting from different angles.

The boundless places we can go and things we can do in cyberspace are technology’s version of fast food. Speedy, convenient, satisfying service. Our powers on the internet embody the antithesis of what took time to clean, chop, simmer properly for health’s sake. Only there is no hassle of a drive-thru, the kids are behind the dash, and for many of them, it’s free. Not unlike the sugar they prefer over whole foods, their online fun is a saccharin pleasure. Not only does the body become sedentary, but the mind bears a direct impact and nourishment is not what it gets. Antisocial Networking, a 2010 NY Times article by Hilary Stout, mentions kindergarteners buried in their technological fixations during playdates. It relays the belief of researchers that brains will be rewired. It is common knowledge that sensory experiences grow and direct cognitive neural pathways. The implications for learning in the context of our tech-crazed culture are foreboding.