A while back, I was looking at a pamphlet given to Japanese business folk to teach them about American culture. One of the paragraphs said something to the effect:
In Japan, it is disgraceful to fail at something, so if it is not likely you will succeed, it is better not to try. But Americans are so funny, they say “it might not work, but let’s do it anyway!”
Now, I don’t know much about Japanese culture, so this may be a gross overgeneralization; but I do know something about American culture, and I wish that this kind of thinking was the norm. But it’s not. We may not call it a disgrace, but most of us are so trapped by our fears of failing that we decide that it’s better to do nothing at all. Why put ourselves out there if it might mean that we won’t succeed?
The thing is that this kind of behavior isn’t intrinsic, it’s learned. It’s something that we as parents and educators teach our children. And unfortunately, we do it by telling them that they’re gifted. We do it by praising their good report cards and showing our disappointment in those that are lackluster. And we do it by continuously lavishing them with notions about just how precocious, talented and brilliant they are.
Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with giving praise; praise is a wonderful thing, and our kids need to see and feel our approval, but we need to place our praise correctly. We need to shift from praising ability to praising process; we need to praise effort instead of intelligence.
Studies show that when children are applauded for their intelligence, it doesn’t boost their self-esteem; it actually has the opposite effect. It makes them worry about failure. It makes them avoid risk. It causes them to choose only those tasks that they know they will do well (which are consequently the ones from which they will learn the least). It makes them dread taking tests and, even worse, sometimes it makes them dislike learning in general.
Why does this happen? Because by praising their intelligence, you’ve told them that your approval is based on their ability, and this ties their self-worth to their ability to succeed. If they don’t do well on a test, it’s because of their lack of ability. It’s inherent to who they are rather than an effect of how hard they tried.
So what happens when you commend kids on their effort rather than their outcomes? They become more motivated. Their performance and self-esteem rise. They enjoy learning and take on those tasks that they will learn the most from because they are not afraid to fail.
I’ve experienced first-hand the effects of praising intelligence over effort. As a kid, I was placed in gifted programs. I was the classic straight-A student. It didn’t make me try harder or learn more; it made me figure out the easiest route to an A. I worked on making the grade, always, instead of really engaging with the material.
Over time, I became a perfectionist, something I thought was a good thing. But as I started to examine my life, I began to see certain patterns. I disliked school even though I had loved learning as a kid. I was constantly stressed, which was affecting my relationships, level of happiness and physical wellbeing. I often felt unmotivated and dreaded taking on new tasks. And it all stemmed from this high standard that I felt I needed to meet, because that standard defined who I was. I had always been praised for my success. If I couldn’t continue to show success, then I couldn’t show my worth. The two were the same in my mind.
Then one day I found out that I wasn’t alone. I came across an entry about perfectionism on the web. Perfectionism can be a good thing for some people, but it depends on their mindset. For me, it was negative. Although I never experienced it to this extreme, maladaptive perfectionism is actually a neurosis characterized by self-deprecation, depression, a slew of health issues and, in some severe cases, suicide. It’s a dark place to be, although it can be treated and overcome.
I am certainly not saying that your kid is going to end up with a psychological disorder because you said “great job!” on their report card. But I am saying that the things we choose to applaud have deep reaching effects on our kids. As they grow into adulthood, an emphasis on effort will serve them better than an emphasis on any innate characteristic.
This holds true when we examine the lives of so many successful people. If you look at their stories, one theme seems to tie them all together: the risk-persistence-resilience paradigm. It is so very often not the brightest or most able people that rise to the top; it’s the ones that weren’t afraid to take risks, to take on the difficult tasks. It’s the ones that got knocked down 25 times and decided to step up to the plate 26.
For example, the budding newspaper editor that was fired because he “lacked imagination.” And the hardworking, aspiring athlete that was cut from his high school basketball team. There’s the 22-year-old reporter that was fired because she was “unfit for TV.” And the little-known author living on welfare, rejected by twelve different publishers and advised to get a day job. You may have heard of these people. Their names are Walt Disney, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and the would-be author who wrote a little series of books about a boy-wizard: J.K. Rowling.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try – Michael Jordan
Instead of teaching your kids that they’re gifted, teach them to persist – to get up, dust themselves off and try again. Praise their effort and encourage them to take on the challenging tasks where they might fail but will learn so much. Teach them resilience, give them the tools they need to be able to bounce back and show them that failure is a natural part of the learning process and not something to be feared. Try your best not to focus on tests and grades as much as the amount of love your kids have for learning.
The jury is still out among scientists as to whether intelligence is innate or learned, whether it’s nature or nurture. But my opinion is that it doesn’t matter. I would rather have my kid living life to its fullest, in love with learning and not held back by a fear of what the outcome of some endeavor might be. This is how kids learn that it’s ok to dream and to dream big and to chase those dreams. And it’s even ok if they don’t reach them.