One of the things that the mindset literature is pretty clear on is that you’re not supposed to praise kids for innate characteristics, but for effort. They have studies where they measure effort after a kid has been told, “You’re so smart” vs. “I can really see the effort you put in” or something like that. Outcomes in the next experiment decline for the former but not for the latter. Later studies suggest cheating goes up when innate intelligence is praised.
And so I’ve been keeping these ideas in mind when raising my kids. With our first child we even went so far as to (frequently) request daycare and school teachers not to praise hir intelligence, but instead hir work ethic and interest.
And I thought that was the right thing to do until recently. For the past couple of years, I’ve had an extremely successful student, a young woman, for two classes who has low confidence. She’s easily one of the best students our program has had and lots of professors agree. But she has low confidence. She wanted to go to graduate school. It took a lot of pushing to get her to apply to top programs that she should have gotten into based on her testscores, perfect GPA, and research experience.
She didn’t get in to any of them. I’m guessing her essay wasn’t any good (she was too embarrassed to show it to professors before sending!) and most likely they wanted more work experience. Plus she was on the low end for pure math courses– a few more probably would have helped. I also wonder if she made the right choices of letter writers. Maybe her research supervisor wasn’t as effusive about her as the professors in my department are.
Contrast that with one of her friends who is similarly situated except has an extremely high self-confidence (even if she has far less intellectual curiosity). This friend didn’t apply to graduate school but did get into one of the most prestigious RA positions you can get as a feeder to top graduate schools.
I met the parents of both women at graduation and got an insight into the difference in confidence. The parents of the second girl thanked me for being a great professor and for giving their daughter opportunities and said they were really excited about her job for next year. They had normal proud parent reactions as we went back and forth praising their daughter (and me) and discussing her future.
The second set of parents (divorced, so I got this conversation twice) was also effusive in their praise for me, but not so much in their praise for their own daughter. “She works hard,” “she’s always worked hard,” was a constant refrain from parents, step-parents, and siblings. But there was something about the way they said it, as if they were excusing the praise rather than accepting it. This was fixed in my mind when her mom’s response to my praise of her daughter was, “that’s sweet of you to say.” “No, no it wasn’t,” I said. “I’m from the midwest. We don’t just say things unless they’re true.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about the world telling my kids that they’re smart. They are smart. That’s just a fact. (And, to be honest, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about being told I’m smart… I mean, yes, I’m smart, but so what. Praise my accomplishments and things I’ve done, not my innate nature.)
Growing up my family took being smart for a given. Of course I was smart. I’m smart but so what. Being smart isn’t enough (wasn’t enough), it’s what I do with it. I wasn’t allowed to let my brain atrophy. I had to keep exercising it. My mom always told me I needed to keep pushing myself so that I could grow more dendrites. Working hard would make me smarter.
Early on I really did believe that I just worked harder and had more opportunities than the other kids. And that’s definitely true– my parents sacrificed a lot to give us opportunities and focused on our academic growth. My mom picked up a lot of good child rearing techniques while working for Head Start back in the 70s.
But in the past few years since having children, I’ve come to suspect that there’s actually a bit of nature in the equation as well. Maybe it’s not just in utero health and stimulation as an infant and so on (though these things are obviously important). I sometimes wonder if gifted kids were just born with a bit more curiosity than non-gifted– and it’s the energy and curiosity that causes us to explore and grow dendrites… or maybe the lower sleep need is what allows more connections to be built, who knows. Other kids can get as smart, but it’s more of an uphill climb.
Nature cannot be everything. At university, I see my students get smarter, quicker, and more curious over the 2-4 years that I know them. That blossoming is amazing. Taking kids with cruddy high school experiences and fewer family advantages and teaching them to think and aspire and question is one of the most rewarding things that I do. People really can get smarter.
I don’t want my DCs to feel limited. I don’t want them to think they’re not capable of great things. Maybe it is ok to say, Yes of course you’re smart, but what matters is what you do with it. What matters is what you love, how hard you work, what interests you, what you care about, how much you focus, how many times you try. And luck, of course, but we can control that about as much as we can our intelligence, which is to say, we can help create our own luck with measured risks just as we can increase our intelligence by focused study*.
I don’t think those short-term lab experiments by Carol Dweck et al. exclude this idea, the idea that you can combine praise for intelligence with emphasis on hard work. So maybe I’ll go back to doing what seems right to me and not worry so much about how people praise my kids, so long as my kids know that intelligence isn’t everything. Maybe praising solely effort isn’t the only way to create perseverance. Maybe a little self-knowledge won’t hurt and will allow them to reach farther so they don’t keep themselves from taking opportunities.
Where do you fall on the praise spectrum? We know all our readers are intelligent– do you think how you were praised as kids affects your perseverance and self-confidence as adults? (And in what way?)
*standard disclaimer about extreme situations and not blaming people in poverty or with mental disabilities