In my never-ending quest to figure out how to raise my kids, I became aware of the book “Nurture Shock – New Thinking About Children.”  So I picked it up, prepared for some new-age psycho-babble about the never-ending Nature vs. Nurture debate in which everyone has a steadfast opinion and no middle ground can be reached.  I was wrong.

The very first chapter struck home – enlightening me, frightening me and giving me actual, real advice (supported by logic and science) that I could immediately begin to implement.  “The Inverse Power of Praise” outlines how and why telling your kids that they are smart may actually subvert their ability to exceed their perception of their limitations.

I have been told my whole life that I am smart.  Constantly and incessantly it was repeated to me, especially when I did not do something as well as others felt I could have.  “A ‘C’ on your test? You are smarter than that.”  “You are smart enough to do that.”  “You didn’t even study, and you aced that test?  You must be really smart.”  So I believed it.  I am smart.  I have been blessed by Athena herself.  I have a gift.  And yet… I failed.  Repeatedly and often.  No top 10% of my class, no summa cum laude, no awards at the office, no Nobel Prize.  If I am so smart, why don’t I excel?

According to the book, I, like so many other children in my position, I saw the world as being divided into two parts: things I was good at and things I wasn’t.  I tended to choose to do the things I was naturally good at and eschew those that I wasn’t.  “Because I am smart, I don’t have to try hard,” I thought.  Further, I saw “expending effort… [as] proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.” (pg. 15)

For the last 10 years or so, researcher Carol Dweck has studied the effect of praise on students.  Her conclusions indicate that praising effort over natural ability, and discussing how effort can be managed, provides kids with the ability to view failure not as a limit of their ability, but as a sign that the did not expend enough effort to succeed.  Dweck explains the phenomenon thusly: “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control.  Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control.”  Further, to be effective and positive, praise has to be specific and repeatedly attainable for the recipient.

Other researchers have similar findings, and they all say roughly the same thing.  Heavily-praised kids (who eventually become young adults) tend to quit quickly because of the fear that they won’t succeed.  They drop out of classes.  They don’t try new things that don’t come easily.  They seriously consider cheating to achieve results.  And they tend to become more concerned with maintaining the image of being smart and successful – often by demeaning and degrading others to demonstrate their superiority.

Praise is not all good or all bad, it is just powerful.  Think of it like the Force:

Yoda: Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?

Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?

Yoda: You will know…

If you made it all the way to the end of this rambling blog, I applaud your effort.  You must have really wanted to get here.