My Girl is not smart. My Girl is not smart...
Wow. Trying to say that like a new mantra. I recently read an interesting NYT Magazine article which said that we shouldn't be telling our children that they are smart. The article provided some compelling information and the writer, Po Bronson, confronted her own "Praise Junkie" habit.
I have to admit reading the article with a bit of a bias. I thought telling my child she was smart was a good thing. You know the whole self esteem thing. I wanted to read the compelling research and confidently conclude, "that's malarkey." I have been telling my girl she is "so smart" since she first cooed, or was that burped, in my direction.
As I was reading the article my own education came flooding back to me. I recall very clearly being put in the "smart group" in the third grade. Our teacher was experimenting with some open concept of school which would allow each child to learn at his or her own pace. The kids were divided into different groups and we "smart kids" were left on their own for a lot of the time. We all could read and write above our grade level so we were allowed to choose what we wanted to learn which in my case pretty much meant concentrating on proving that I could do beautifully things I had already mastered. If there was something I didn't know how to do I could actually avoid it because it was assumed we already knew the basics. We would make it to fourth grade even if we didn't learn anything new this year.
What happened for me that year is I learned how to game the system. I could maintain my "smart" standing as long as I performed well publicly on things I was already competent in. If I didn't know how to do something or even thought I didn't I wouldn't chance doing it. I really couldn't risk the embarrassment. I was an an extrovert so I got very good at volunteering when I knew I could shine and staying pretty quiet when I was unsure. The rest of my school career was punctuated by these apparent bursts of genius and I would wager a guess that most of my high school friends would classify me as "smart" even though I was far less then competent in many of my classes.
Being thought of as smart became more important then actually learning. It was more important not to be seen as failing then it was to be seen learning and possibly struggling. In high school I avoided courses that might have challenged and chose instead courses where I would easily shine. What I neglected to learn is that all accomplishment takes work and going through school and later college only doing the things that came easy to me kept me from doing the things tat really called to my heart.
I adore the mysteries of the universe but unable to chance the humiliation of possible failure I stayed away from physics. I took an honors English class and an Art class instead. I still looked smart but I wasn't learning what I really wanted to be learning. Physics would have been hard for me since I had never learned how to apply myself and study. Also, I just couldn't risk falling from my "smart kid" pedestal.
Fast forward to today and I can see I've been set up to make the same mistake with my daughter. She really IS smart so the phrase rolls easily off my tongue.
The other day she was building with her Citiblocs, making towers of varying heights and one of them kept falling down. I have seen her try and try to make things work previously but this time she said, "Mommy, can you do it for me? I can't do it." I told her I thought she could and she should try again. She growled. "I don't want to. I can't do it." I realized in this moment that I had always praised the big towers she was successful at making. I didn't always praise when I caught her trying something that was unsuccessful.
The NYT Magazine Article recommends praising our kids for their effort not their innate abilities. This makes SO much sense to me now. By applauding my daughter's easy achievements I am teaching her that it is important to already know the answers. In time she, like her mother before her, won't even want to test things for fear of looking like she doesn't know how.
By applauding her effort, "You really worked hard on that." I am telling her that the outcome isn't the most important thing. I don't want Sweets to avoid her heart's calling just because the road may be difficult. Looking back, I have many regrets, hopefully I have just learned how to help my girl from having to relive this particular one! If nothing else, I am willing to work hard at it!
Are you a praise junkie too?
Do check out the New York Times Magazine article here
I thought it would be fun to play the hopping game.
Click on the button and join us!