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Nurture Shock: Chapter 1

{This is the first in a series of posts about the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Click here to read more.}

The Inverse Power of Praise

Bronson and Merryman start out with a bang: stop telling your child he/she is smart. Neuro-biological research shows it will ruin his/her chances of success.

Huh? Aren’t we supposed to tell children constantly how beautiful (or handsome), smart, strong, fast, talented, and creative they are? According to Bronson and Merryman, our “instincts” about parenting and teaching, informed by decades of flawed research, are wrong and may even foster the opposite of our good intentions.

In 1969, Nathaniel Branden wrote a book called The Psychology of Self-Esteem. His assertion that self-esteem was the most important facet of a child’s upbringing paved the way for decades of associating praise and self-esteem with success: psychologists theorized that the more self-esteem a child had and the more praise he received, the more successful he would become. Conversely, a child with low self-esteem, who received little praise, would likely get poor grades, become a bully, and, eventually, be a menace to society. Professionals in the fields of child development and education told parents to praise their children “early and often”, and schools set up “no-fail” zones in which every child received an award at the end of the year for something, lest she feel bad about herself.

At my elementary school in the ’70s, I don’t think my classmates and I felt the effects of this research. I still remember the reading chart we had in my fourth grade classroom – every time you read a book, you got to put a gold star on the line next to your name. You better believe that my name always had the most gold stars next to it! We didn’t have Gifted and Talented classes, but we did have reading and math groups –  we had red circles, blue squares, and green triangles – or something like that, and we switched teachers for instruction. Nothing was ever said about high, medium, and low, but we knew which group we (and our classmates) were in. In math class, we went to the board (with fear and trepidation) to solve multi-digit addition problems, and woe to the child who forgot to “carry the one”!

Discipline procedures were no less character-building. In kindergarten, I sat on the little yellow bench just inside the room while the rest of my classmates played on the kindergarten playground at recess. When we lost our recess in first grade, we had to stand on a square foot  of linoleum tile (maybe that’s where I developed my loathing of linoleum!) for the whole period. Legend has it that my second grade teacher told my mother I was as stubborn as a jackass. (Can you imagine a teacher saying that to a parent now?) My third grade teacher had a tail she threatened to pin on you if you tattled. Seriously!

I think it’s safe to say that my elementary school teachers had never heard of Nathaniel Branden or praise or nurturing a child’s self-esteem. This might suggest to the blog reader that parents and teachers have a choice between liberal, effusive praise and shame and humiliation when rearing and instructing children. But, as Bronson and Merryman discovered, there is more to praise than meets the eye.

In the opening chapter of Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman upend 40 years of thinking about how and why we praise children. Surprisingly, they found that praising children for being smart  does not guarantee higher performance; in fact, it may do just the opposite.  They write:

The presumption is that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But a growing body of research…strongly suggests that it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

Bronson and Merryman, 2009

Two things drive home this new way of thinking about child development: educational psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the effect of praise on 400 students in New York City schools, and Roy Baumeister’s review of 30 years of literature of self-esteem research.

Dr. Dweck and her research team conducted an experiment in which a researcher pulled a child out of his/her fifth grade classroom and administered an IQ test, which consisted of a series of puzzles designed so that all the children would do well. After the test, the researcher told the child her score and then gave her a single line of praise (children were randomly assigned to one of two groups). Children paised for their intelligence were told, “You must be smart at this.” Children praised for their effort heard, “You must have worked really hard.”

The researchers then gave students a choice for the second round: a test that would be harder than the one before, but they might learn something from attempting the puzzles; or a test that would be easy, just like the first one. Dr. Dweck found that 90% of the children praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle (emphasis original) and that the majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test.

In her explanation for why this happened, Dweck summarized that “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.” The fifth graders exemplified this when they took the “easy way out”, preferring to look smart while averting possible failure and embarrassment.

Dweck’s research team followed up their original study with a round in which the children attempted puzzles that were two years above their grade level. The children failed the test, but they responded differently: those praised for effort assumed they had not tried hard enough on the test; those praised for intelligence figured they just weren’t smart at that kind of thing and, maybe, weren’t that smart at all.

For the last round of tests, Dweck’s team gave the kids tests that were designed to be as easy as those in the first round. The kids in the “effort group” improved their original scores by about 30%. The kids in the “smart group” performed worse (emphases mine) than they had on the original test – by about 20%.

Dweck concluded that when adults praise children solely for their intelligence, their motivation to excel decreases. This contradicts our intuition as parents and teachers and what we think we’re supposed to do to build self-confidence in our children. It turns out the research linking self-esteem to everything from sexual fulfillment to career advancement is not as solid as we think it is.

In 2003, Dr. Roy Baumeister, a key player in the self-esteem movement, reviewed 15,000 scholarly works written between 1970 and 2000. His research team found that self-esteem research was rife with flawed science. Most of the studies asked people to rate their self-esteem and then rate their own intelligence, career success, relationship skills, etc. Baumeister deemed these studies unreliable because people with high self-esteem tend to have an overdeveloped view of their own abilities. Of the 15,000 studies Baumeister reviewed, only 200 (200!!!) used scientifically sound methods to gauge self-esteem and its outcomes. After reviewing these 200 articles, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem did not improve grades or enhance careers. It didn’t lower alcohol and drug use or curb violent tendencies in people (debunking the theory that aggressive people are compensating for their lack of self-esteem.)

If you’re still reading, God bless you! I hope I haven’t bored you to tears with the information that led Bronson and Merryman to advocate that we stop praising our children for being smart and instead praise them for working hard, but I think it’s essential to know that they based their conclusion on reliable research, not a “feeling” or anecdotal evidence.

I do  have anecdotal evidence from 14 years in the classroom that leads me to believe Bronson and Merryman are right on the mark. When I ask my students to solve math problems, I tell them to “show their work.” I tell them I don’t just want them to give me the answer; I want to know what they are thinking, and since I can’t open their heads and see  inside their brains, they have to make their thinking visible on paper. I ask, “How will I know how to help you when you make a mistake if I can’t see what you were thinking?” (A collective gasp can be heard – mistake???)  My students, who are very smart, resist this. Many children will do their work off to the side of a problem, then erase all of their mathematical thinking, leaving only the answer. Others will work out the problem on scratch paper and then try to throw it away when I’m not looking! They are doing what the fifth graders in Dweck’s study did: trying to “save face” when confronted with a difficult task.

My students also have a hard time accepting my assurances that mistakes are good – I have to tell them repeatedly that if they don’t make any mistakes, I won’t know what to teach them! (I give them mini-lectures on the brain, explaining how when they acquire new skills or learn from their mistakes, neurons in their brain fire, connecting dendrites and, ultimately, making them smarter!) I have seen smart children choose not to attempt a bonus problem rather than risk getting the answer wrong. It takes the whole year to do away with the notion that being smart means learning should come easily and to cultivate the idea that persistance when working on a difficult task pays off (and then I have to start all over again the next year!)

I do not think Bronson and Merryman are arguing that we should never praise our kids for their intelligence or athletic or artistic abilities. Rather, I think the research shows that we should encourage their efforts more than we dole out compliments. Over the years, I have learned to praise my students for being smart, strong, fast, talented, and creative (and cute to boot!) in a way that supports genuine self-confidence building. When my class meets together in a Community Circle to discuss and solve a problem, I ask their opinions and craft workable solutions from their answers, telling them “Wow – y’all really came up with some great ideas today. I’m glad I don’t have to be the only problem-solver in this classroom!” When a student approaches me after completing an assignment and asks, “Where do I put this?” I tell him to think about what would make sense – is this math? reading? writing? (We have trays labeled as such.) And when he decides that it’s math and it should go in the math tray, I say, “I knew you could figure it out.”

When it comes down to it, we want to raise competent, self-reliant children who have confidence in themselves and can think creatively about problems. We used to think praising them up one side and down the other would do the trick. Now, thanks to Bronson and Merryman, we know better.

What will we do with this knowledge?

ETA: Here’s a link to my friend, reverendmother’s, response to this post – a worthwhile read that furthers the conversation.

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