Some years ago, Adorable Child (AC) and I were driving around the teeny, remote village on the St. Lawrence River in which we lived. I can’t remember what we were doing, specifically, but when AC said, “Mommy, they have a museum here!”, I was surprised.
We loved living in that village; it was safe, friendly, and very low-stress… but it wasn’t exactly a center for citified cultural attractions. 2,000 people just won’t support such amenities, and so I asked how she knew that.
She replied, “Because the sign said so!”
Sure enough, I looked where she was pointing, and there was a little brown sign with the word “Museum”.
That was the day I discovered she could read. She was 2 years old.
Since then, she’s had constant reinforcement on the theme of “You’re really, really smart”. It isn’t because Polimom has told her so (although I definitely have); it isn’t just because she’s labeled as “gifted” (although of course she has been); it isn’t because she grasps concepts far more easily, and quickly, than her age peers (and yes, she does).
It’s all of those things.
So why, then, would she suddenly start underperforming? And what could possibly provoke a child like this to say, “I’m not smart enough to do this”? Why would she enter a regional academic competition, but then not study (and actively fight against it)… and from the predictable low finish, decide that she’s not as smart as she’s been told?
Sigh… I feel like I’ve been smacked between the eyes with a 2×4 (my emphasis):
For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.
When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. 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. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. 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—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests 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.
It’s not just the parents, and it’s not just schools or academics, either. If your kid has ever been on a non-scholastic youth sports team (out here in Katy, soccer comes to mind…), you’ll recognize this (my emphasis again):
Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.
I can’t even count how many plaques, medals, and trophies AC has accumulated from programs modeled on this approach. The positive self-esteem theories were applied across board, and radically altered the way we think about parenting, educating, coaching — developing children’s potential in general.
Reading the article (and several blog entries relating to it) has brought years of AC’s “problems” into sharp focus. Is her “I’m just no good at math” a reaction to a low score on a math quiz? Or rather, is she internalizing the words of the classmate who said, “I thought GT kids were supposed to get good grades”? Or was it to her having rushed the quiz because smart kids finish early and easily?
The answer to all of those is “Yes”.
If this new research is correct (and it resonated deeply with me), then it’s both good news and bad news… because while Polimom and Dear Husband can focus on how, when, and what we praise / reward at home, we cannot hope to get in front of the onslaught on AC from a well-intended, undermining society.
Four decades is a very long time for all of us to have done this wrong.
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I’m looking forward to your feedback on this post. There’s a lot to process, and the implications of (and repercussions from) the research have my head spinning.
In addition to Po Bronson’s NY Magazine article, I also recommend Laura Vanderkam’s blog entry on this (here) at Gifted Exhange, and the Houston Chronicle’s School Zone blog post by Jennifer Radcliffe (here) — which is how I found the NYMag article — thanks!