4 decades of doing it wrong?

Posted on Saturday 24 February 2007

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.

* * * * *

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!

12 Comments for '4 decades of doing it wrong?'

  1.  
    Jack
    February 24, 2007 | 6:23 pm
     

    A gifted child knows they are smart just by going to public schools. The kids know in class who to get the right answers, who passes the ”hard” tests, and who doesn’t need to study that much.

    Your child appreciates acknowledgment of their accomplishments, even if it was an easy grade. If you are in the habit of making note of good grades, she will notice when that stops. Even if it is expected, and you both know that she didn’t have to try hard to get that A, she will notice if you don’t praise it. The tricky line here is that for her, an A will not be hard to get in some particular class. But compared to most of the others in that class, that A may be one of only a few given out and she will be proud of that.

    Another ticky area here for a parent is the difference between classes that have grade inflation policies and those that don’t. By high school you will have one of these but whether it is a change in her habits or that of the teacher’s grading will make a difference. Either way, it will not be an easy adjustment for the gifted child, but it is important to have this experience some time before college.

    I’d have to say that of praise I have received from my parents, I have appreciated it much more when they recognized the amount of time spent accomplishing something. When for once I had to spend some serious time studying for a test, having them notice this meant something too me. At some point, as I said earlier, you know that your parents think you are smart.

  2.  
    michael
    February 24, 2007 | 7:54 pm
     

    > Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person

    i know n.b. slightly on a personal level and his work very well, and that statement is nowhere to be found in his writing. he makes very, very clear that what is paramount is basing everything you do on reality – including a realistic self-appraisal. his books are all about bringing one’s self-assessment in line both with reality and with one’s own potential.

  3.  
    February 24, 2007 | 9:11 pm
     

    Michael, thank you for commenting.

    My intent here is not to attack or malign Dr. Branden, but rather, to offer commentary on how I’ve seen praise and reward systems being utilized, and some effects. Praising a child for being “smart”, or being a “good swimmer”, can set an internal standard based on a state of being… and thus, can be a vulnerability. Likewise, rewarding all members of every team with a trophy at the end of a volleyball season lessens the value of a trophy (or reward) earned for real effort.

    I too feel that positive self-esteem is critical to a happy, successful self. Whether the author paraphrased too heavily or not, I’d have to agree that there’s support for the way it was said in the article. (An example here)

    Also — self-assessment (or realistic self-appraisal), alas, isn’t a forte of young children.

  4.  
    February 25, 2007 | 7:53 am
     

    Well, while I can understand the problems with the “everybody is a winner” paradigm (especially the devaluation of actual performance), I have seen this type of reaction/behavior before. In fact, I suffered from it, as did others I knew (including my mother.) For some reason, at a particular point in growing up, a child seems to feel that “being a brain isn’t cool”, or (possibly more importantly) that “showing off” one’s talents isn’t the way to fit in and be part of the crowd, and they succumb to peer pressure and under-perform. I don’t know if this is hormone-driven, or if it is more of a sociological / psychological thing, but AC’s generation certainly isn’t the first one to experience it.

    You might also consider that AC may be “testing the limits”, something that is a part of growing up, and how do you respond – do you stand fast, and insist that she perform to the level she is capable of, or do you accept something less?

    ~EdT.

  5.  
    February 25, 2007 | 7:56 am
     

    BTW, on a slightly humorous note – my mother told me that, when she succumbed to this particular temptation and brought home a less-than-stellar report card, her father signed his first name to it, then handed it back to her. When she asked him why, his response was “Well, you did half the work, so I signed half my name.”

    Needless to say, the next report card she brought home looked quite different.

    ~EdT.

  6.  
    February 25, 2007 | 1:53 pm
     

    [...] Polimom says that she’s worried about her daughter and whether she’s been given too much self-esteem.  She says: 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: 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. [...]

  7.  
    February 25, 2007 | 2:07 pm
     

    Hmmm….. Marc, reading your post from the pingback above, I have to assume that in spite of your kind statement that I write well, I may have blown it on this one.

    Maybe a better way to describe it would be a fear of failure, or of a child’s worries about looking “less” than the successful/smart image they feel they have to maintain.

    Jack said, “A gifted child knows they are smart just by going to public schools. The kids know in class who to get the right answers, who passes the ‘’hard’’ tests, and who doesn’t need to study that much.”

    And certainly that’s true; I don’t think there’s any way a child who’s academically gifted wouldn’t know that — and that’s not the problem.

    It’s when the child begins to stay in the “safe” zone to maintain the label, or worse, doubts themselves when hit with a failure because they’ve internalized a message that everything’s easy for smart kids, that I think problems arise.

  8.  
    Jack
    February 25, 2007 | 4:14 pm
     

    Breaking through that “everything’s easy for the smart kids” wall is a hard one. But I think the harder wall to hit is when you realize that there are people smarter than you. Not that you ever go through school thinking you are number one, but you do picture yourself in the top tier. At some point you take a college prep class where for that particular group, you are just average. Of course at that point you still make awesome grades. But then in college it really hits you, and I think that is a different mindset to get used to.

    As far as the issue of society giving praise, or that which you can’t control as parents, it is an issue of comparison. Teachers deal with so many students who don’t come to school, don’t pay attention in class, don’t do the work, turn the work in late, etc. They are just so happy to have students who simply follow instruction and complete the assignment on time. So if on top of that you actually get all the right answers and maybe even show some insight on an essay, then it is hard not to throw out some praise there even though for that particular student there wasn’t super effort involved.

    The “safe zone” happens when there ceases to be a perceived incentive or advantage to being at top performance. The line of thought is, if everyone knows I can do this, what am I proving by getting a 100 on this instead of an 88? I’ll get more free time to go play if I just stop working on this homework now, and I’ll still pass the assignment. It is not easy to picture at this stage of school that cutting things off may catch up to you in a later course.

  9.  
    CLG
    February 26, 2007 | 11:04 am
     

    I swear, I posted my issues with my daughter before I started blog-browsing. What I did not state in my post is that we are, on the advice of her teachers, pushing our daughter to fail.

    Why would we do that to a third grader? Because she needs to learn to work hard. She is Gifted/Talented, and in a very demanding program to cultivate her talents. I don’t micromanage her regular school homework. If she doesn’t feel like she needs to study her multiplication, I let her get the 35 on the test. How embarassing is that for a GT kid to fail a test that the rest of the class got A’s on? After a couple of those, she’s learning that she needs to study.

    With sports, we put her in the demanding, three-practice-a-week league, rather than the no-need-to-win church league all her friends are in. As I posted, she has suddenly realized she does need to practice. That hard work is worth the effort.

    I guess this probably comes across as Super-Competitive-Mom, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with working hard to win. Like we tell our kids, we don’t care if you actually DO win, but whether you are in school or on the field, you had better be working hard. Don’t bring home a 35 because you didn’t study. Bring home a 35 because you challenged yourself, worked hard, and STILL got a 35.

  10.  
    February 26, 2007 | 3:14 pm
     

    For some reason, trackbacks aren’t working reliably at the moment.

    CLG has pinged with an excellent post of her own, here.

  11.  
    February 27, 2007 | 10:27 am
     

    [...] Prior related post here. [...]

  12.  
    Leslie Copeland
    March 9, 2009 | 2:06 pm
     

    As a child, I was regarded as “smart.” Gifted, talented, whatever. It doesn’t mean much without hard work and critical thinking. Now, as an adult, I don’t call my child “smart.” I tell her to think.
    If I told her she was smart, it would be like saying she’s in a permanent state, and her actions don’t have control over that. Sure, she’s got basic intelligence. But it’s only a starting point. She’s got to decide what to do with what she’s got.
    Plenty of prodigy kids start out amazing and lose it along the way because they don’t learn how to apply themselves, how to make their abilities fit life’s demands.
    I don’t give a hang whether anyone thinks my daughter is smart. Because of this, they probably will. But I have taught her not to care.
    “Use logic skills,” I tell her, “Think it through.” If she can learn to solve problems for herself, to fail and keep trying, that’s what matters. She needs to keep going for the goal, not to impress teachers, or me, or anybody.

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