Here’s a post I missed last week at Metafilter. Thanks to the magic of Matt’s new podcast, though, I found this gem today, long after the discussion had died. The post is awesome. It’s so awesome that I’m going to leave it up here for a couple of days until all of you — especially you parents — have had a chance to read the linked articles. Here’s the entire post:

“You’re really smart!”
Psychologist Carol Dweck says that praising a child for being smart only teaches the kid to avoid any effort that might fail. "When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes." Malcolm Gladwell chimes in with his thoughts on the importance of being a smart kid, "What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement."
posted by revgeorge (218 comments total)

The 218 comments are filled with great anecdotes about smart kids who learned not to try for fear of failure. I was one of those. I am one of those. I was always told I was smart (and I appreciate the love my parents showed by praising me in such a way), but these affirmations had the opposite of the desired effect. They made me less confident in my abilities, not more.

Here are a few of the interesting Metafilter comments:

I’ve chewed on this question pretty much my whole life. School came pretty easy to me and I was always told I was smart. That never really jived with how I felt — I assumed I was lucky because I was curious and tested well. I felt (and still feel, to some extent) that I was gonna be “found out” — that I really didn’t know shit from Shinola. I think my lazy and procrastinating streaks are probably a result.

There are a couple of points the articles don’t make (but, on preview, I see that other posters have made). One is that heaps of praise can lead to a pernicious imposter syndrome — if I try and fail, then everyone will know that I’ve been faking all along. If I appear to be simply apathetic, well, I’ll be judged for that, but no one will think I’ve been faking intelligence, at least. Another is that if all my achievements are chalked up to some sort of innate, in-born talent, then I’m not really getting any credit for my hard work, am I? I see that with professional athletes, as well–Michael Jordan was certainly born with a predilection for being very good at basketball, but he also worked very hard at it. Calling his accomplishments the result of pure talent reduces their value.

Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, in his horrifying autobiographical novel Borderliners, talks about the pitfalls of praise; his idea is that value judgments are artifacts of the adult world, that during childhood curiosity rules. There are so new things to explore and make and want to do, and these experiences and ideas live outside the adult world of good or bad, right or wrong. So, according to Hoeg, even praise forces a child to see, during the initial period of childhood discovery, in adult terms of right or wrong, and unfairly forces a child into a mindset and a track based on an adult’s judgment.

I was a smart kid– too smart for my own good, in many ways– and almost always got good grades. But one thing that I distinctly remember is how much I loathed being praised for my effort. I hated getting a report card in grade school and seeing an “A” for results and another “A” for effort. It always felt like cheating, somehow. If I was going to be praised, I felt, it should be on my intrinsic merits, not just because I had “worked hard,” whatever that meant. After all, anyone can apply time and concentration to a task. I would know I had achieved true academic success, I believed, when I received an “A” for results and a failing grade for effort. I never did.

If I run a half-marathon and do well despite lack of proper training, just through determination, I feel like I cheated. Sure, I made it, but I didn’t train. I didn’t become better. I just made myself do it. Similarly, I remember a certain philsophy paper that I pulled out of my ass and scored an A. It didn’t deserve an A. I certainly didn’t put A-level effort into it. Did I keep the paper? No, it got tossed in the trash. Did getting that A build self-esteem? Far from it. Pushing yourself builds self-esteem. Achievement, especially for those for whom it comes easily, is worth little, whether or not you do better than others.

The older I’ve gotten, the less likely I am to try something new and my cognitive experience is that my enjoyment of an activity is linked to my success as perceived and reported back by others, or winning, or perfect performance. I am incapable of internal, inherent standards and rely on external cues from others to judge my personal satisfaction with an experience.

(That last sentence is so true it hurts.)

The kids who do well in later life are the ones who are given the emotional and psychological mechanisms to cope with set backs and failure and who are taught how to see (simple simple at first) things through. Kids have to be taught that their failures are as important, if not more so than their victories, but in this culture if you don’t get out there early and distinguish yourself you’re thought of as “not good enough”.

And then there’s the absolutely amazing comment from “robocop is bleeding”: the story of Dr. Addler and The Wheel.

I’ve read the two main articles now, and have read about a quarter of the comments. Whenever I get free time, I go back and read a few more. This is fascinating stuff, and I think it goes far in explaining some of the challenges I’m facing lately.

This “smart kid” syndrome is the reason I get stage-fright regarding radio interviews or even posting to my blogs. This is the reason I’m always asking for constructive feedback. When people only tell me how much they love something I do, it has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of being proud of what I’ve accomplished, it gives me a reputation I feel I have to maintain. It makes me afraid to stumble.

By the way, my “take away” from all this is:

  • Parents, praise your children, but don’t give them general praise like, “You’re so smart” or “You’re helpful”. Instead, give them specific praise: “Thank you for helping with the dishes”, “You did a great job on that essay”, “That pass you made was excellent — it helped Chris score a goal”.
  • Hard work and intelligence are both important, and both should be emphasized. But it’s the work that is most important to praise.
  • Failure, while it probably shouldn’t be encouraged, should be shown to have positive aspects. We learn from our mistakes. We cannot grow without failure. Failure is only bad if we let it defeat us. Don’t stigmatize failure, but show how it can be used for gain.
  • Don’t be afraid to criticize. Criticism, when it is constructive, helps a person grow.
  • It’s much kinder, in the long run, to mold a child’s behavior than it is to mold an adult’s behavior. By the time your kid is 38, it’s too late to change things that have fucked him up. The time to take care of that stuff is when she’s 8. But that can be very, very hard to do.

There’s a lot of information in these articles. A good book could almost be drawn from them. But it’s well worth reading.

9 Replies to “Smart Kids”

  1. J.D. says:

    Also, I should note that it’s not just parents who influence their children through praise — it’s adults of all sorts, especially those in power: teachers, aunts and uncles, coaches, etc. Parents just spend the most time with their kids.

    Further, I think that we as adults are guilty of interacting with eachother in the same way. “You’re so smart, Larry.” “I’m not as athletic as you, Susan.” Etc. These may provide small, immediate ego-boosts, but they’re ultimately not helpful. I think we ought to praise each other more for specific things: “That was a delicious soup, Mary.” “I really like this particularl painting, Sam. The colors are vibrant, and I like these lines.”

  2. Lisa Simpson's twin says:

    Wow. This really hits home. Did you ever see the Simpson’s episode where the teachers go on strike and rather than revel in her freedom, Lisa falls apart? In one scene she begs her mother to grade her, evaluate her. She is lost without it–she lost her sense of self, meaning, happiness . . . This is me and terrifies me at times. This is the type of crisis that leads “successful” people like me to seek out therapy.

    One thing to remember, it isn’t just parents who facilitate this “smart kid” syndrome. As a society, we value “smartness,” we like to assess, grade, etc., and as you noted, we internalize these values at a very young age.

  3. Lauren Muney says:

    Your take-away seems dead-on, as I’ve seen in all the maturity, growth, and psychology tomes I have read. This reminded me of a book I blogged about last week:

    I’ve noticed that most people “flatter” instead of compliment. (ie: “you’re so pretty”) When what we –adults and children– ned is honest feedback as to what has occurred (“This project is working very well since you recommended the new changes, Bob”). Compliments are still useful on the personal side, but feedback (‘response’) will help more: this is the ‘specific praise’ you discussed. In this way, children and adults will more understand how to deal with mistakes — ie: actions which may need corrections, like a sailor corrects a ship, not like a dungeon-master corrects a prisoner!

    Additionally (and this is a personal opinion), I think parents should stop saying the words, “Good job!” to kids for everything they do. This is where the praise comes back into play: “You were extremely helpful washing the dog today, Sally. He’s going to enjoy his clean fur”. Then Sally understands exactly what the ‘good job’ was and how it impacted the envoronment. Sally can also take this feedback into her life to understand ‘context’, which is something that many children AND adults seem to miss.

  4. mrs darling says:

    I’ll go read those links. I heard about this on the news the other night but was busy and didnt get to really follow the story. Thanks for the links.

  5. This specific praising is nothing new. It has been around in the educational world for a long time. I have always known that an increase in self esteem is not brought on by praising, as some might think, but by overcoming obstacles and by working hard at a difficult task. Just think of the times when you were most proud of yourself. If a task is easy or undeserved, then it does not bring about a sense of achievement. When someone notices that you have overcome a difficult challenge, that is true praise indeed.

  6. jenefer says:

    I thought all night about how to comment on this entry. Jennifer Gingerich’s comment is so succinct and says what I was thinking but unable to say without much editing. I agree whole-heartedly with her comments.

  7. tim says:

    My dad didn’t call me smart, but he did call me a smartass fairly frequently. Umm, maybe that’s why I can’t stop cracking jokes.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I so relate to this, but I don’t think it was my parents’ fault. I think I just got used to a world where you do the work and follow the rules and get praise as a result. I was a teacher’s dream.

    Unfortunately, the grown up world isn’t like that. I loved school because the expectations were clear, and because I knew I could fulfill them. As an adult things are much more confusing, and advancement and praise are as much a matter of luck or politics as anything substantial.

  9. Amy Jo says:

    Here is another interesting article related to this topic:

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