Monday, February 19, 2007

How Not to Talk to Your Kids

...or, as the sub-title says, "The Inverse Power of Praise."

For anyone interested in "motivating" others, whether offspring, protege or subordinate, this article is a must-read. The writer is addressing specifically the overdone use of "praise" in the matter of child rearing but as I read I was nodding to myself all the way through recalling years of coaching, teaching and teeth-clenching invested in leading subordinates (and yes, even peers) in the food business to better (read more business the metric is much easier to state than with parenting) results.

Having wasted most of my professional life preaching much the same message and having it tossed aside, I don't expect at this late date that anyone will bother to come round and say "You know, you were right all along." But I cling to the notion that someday in the distant future, after I have gone to my reward, posts like this will be uncovered in the mouldering masses of bloggerdom, washed off like a piece of jewelry found in the mud, and put into some one's collection as an artifact worth keeping.

Cutting to the chase, constant praise on the part of parents, however well-intended, has the effect of spoiling the impact of actual achievement on the part of the youngster. Too much praise is typically counterproductive, producing results that are quite the opposite of what the parent wants.

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. ...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...strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from under performing. It might actually be causing it.

...those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

... this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren’t immune to the inverse power of praise.

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Those snips should be enough to catch the reader's interest. I blog this as important reading for anyone interested in human behavior of any kind. We all recognize bullshit praise when it comes from the boss. It's less easy to spot when it comes from a family member, but even then we know how to separate sincerity from bologna.

In the end it is the learning curve, not the coaching, that makes the difference. That's a tough principle for anyone to follow, especially parents. We want so deeply to see our children succeed that we ache when they fail. Nevertheless, every failure is really more than a simple shortcoming. At worst, failure can be the last straw, the final disappointment that causes someone to give up. But for the lucky one who at some level knows that success is within reach, every failure is nothing more than another notch in the development of character.

H/T Pieter Dorsman for noticing.

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