Every time an article about how to raise successful human beings pops up on my social media feed, I am convinced that being a parent is the toughest job in the world. I often feel that managing and leading employees at work is ten times easier than my job as a mother. It is a delicate balancing act that leaves me feeling inept most of the time and wondering if I am “doing it right”. Apparently, I am not doing it right, because in recent years, researchers have discovered that the push for boosting children’s self-esteem is backfiring big time, actually causing the opposite result. They say we are creating kids who lack confidence because they need constant affirmation from us. Is praising my kid’s smarts actually doing her a disservice? In an interview conducted by Alexandra Ossola of The Atlantic in 2014, Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, expressed that we may be negatively affecting children’s self-confidence and resilience by using praise wrong. Wait, what? Do you mean that telling my daughter I think she is the smartest kid I know is making her feel less sure of herself? The answer appears to be yes.
Our natural tendency is to praise a person for the end result of their efforts rather than what they did to achieve that result. Ms. Dweck explained that praising children’s intelligence too much, may reduce their willingness to take on challenges because they believe their abilities are a given and something they do not have to work for. Thus, when they face a challenge they are not prepared for, they quit and start to think they are not smart. This poses a problem because parents and teachers are unknowingly making children unable to cope with the challenges they face in a classroom, particularly those related to subjects like science, technology, engineering or math. Since STEM subjects require a lot of trial and error, children who are not resilient are prone to just give up and think they are not smart. If praising their intelligence produces the opposite effect we intend, what can we do to counter this?
Developing a growth mindset in children requires a commitment from caregivers to ensure praise is used correctly. This is difficult, particularly when studies have shown that there is a tendency for mothers to encourage their children differently depending on gender. Ms. Dweck says that because girls tend to be easier to engage than boys, we employ different strategies to motivate boys, thus inspiring their persistence and focus. On the other hand, girls typically do not require this type of motivation and only get feedback at the end of the process, thus creating the sense that results matter more than the efforts employed. Additionally, because science and math tend to be more challenging, many students develop a natural aversion to these subjects; they are often intimidated by them. Only those kids who learn from a young age that intelligence is not a given, but something we continuously must work for and persist, will stay the course despite the challenges they face.
Thankfully there are ways we can cultivate a sense of perseverance and focus on our children by implementing a different approach in encouraging them. Ms. Dweck recommends praising the process the kids use to solve problems instead of praising their smarts. Praising hard work, perseverance, staying on task, etc. inspires kids to continue to press on despite obstacles, because it makes the process of surmounting those obstacles more rewarding than the end result. In essence, kids become more resilient and less inclined to abandon their efforts. Furthermore, encouraging children to go out of their comfort zone and take on difficult assignments or projects will teach them that that learning takes effort more than ability, thus boosting their confidence.
Many kids grow up thinking they are not good at math or science. A myth parents and teachers may unknowingly perpetuate by avoiding the subjects altogether, or worse, by applying punitive measures when the children do not perform well. The opposite of too much praise is belittlement, which research upon research shows has an even more negative effect on children’s confidence. Creating resilient kids takes a lot of patience and practice and we will encounter a lot of resistance along the way. It is important to foster an environment where children are encouraged to try different ways of doing things, to feel free to test theories and come up with different solutions. The focus must be on the process, and the emphasis should be on perseverance in the face of obstacles.
This is why the work of organizations like The Manifezt Foundation is so important today more than ever. These organizations are helping ensure children in communities that do not typically have the resources available in higher income areas, can join programs that help them develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Our kids will not know how smart they are until they have the chance to challenge themselves and develop a life-long love for math and science. It does not matter how much praise we give them for their intelligence, what matters is that we give them what they need to prove it for themselves.