Death by Praise

The recent How Not to Talk to Your Kids article was a real eye-opener for me. It turns out that praising kids kills their willingness to learn and take risks:

The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”…

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

I really resonated with this. I was consistently praised for my intelligence as a child, but nobody could have ever praised my effort because I never put any forth. I’d always believed this was simply because the generalized curriculum wasn’t challenging (it truly wasn’t) but I also realized that I was subtly programmed that trying was for dumb kids. This isn’t some type of retroactive interpretation of my subconscious: I have a vivid memory of thinking exactly that during my grade 10 math class as students went to get help from the teacher.

I only learned how to try much later in life. I was smart enough to coast through high school and even my first abortive attempt at University. I don’t like playing “what if” because it’s a complete waste of time and I can only do anything about now, but I do wonder what would have been different if I had only ever been praised for effort.


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