The Examined Life: Don’t Praise Kids For Their ‘Cleverness’

the_examined_lifeI purchased the above-mentioned book by Stephen Grosz last month after seeing it at the top of the sales chart in the Guardian Bookstore. Grosz is a psychoanalyst based in London of over twenty-five years standing and his book The Examined Life consists of just over 30 very short chapters relating a number of stories from his career.

The passage from the book that I want to share with you all is not about a patient of his, but an observation he makes early on in the book about our attitudes towards children.

“Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise – over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting – why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work – why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

“In a now famous 1998 study of children aged ten and eleven, psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller asked 128 children to solve a series of mathematical problems. After completing the first set of simple exercises, the researchers gave each child just one sentence of praise. Some were praised for their intellect – ‘You did really well, you’re so clever’; others for their hard work – ‘You did really well, you must have tried really hard.’ Then the researchers had the children try a more challenging set of problems. The results were dramatic. The students who were praised for their effort showed a greater willingness to work out new approaches. They also showed more resilience and tended to attribute their failures to insufficient effort, not to a lack of intelligence. The children who had been praised for their cleverness worried more about failure, tended to choose tasks that confirmed what they already knew, and displayed less tenacity when the problems got harder. Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.”

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4 Responses to The Examined Life: Don’t Praise Kids For Their ‘Cleverness’

  1. Mira says:

    I don’t know if I agree with the hypothesis (presented as conclusion) that children who are praised for their cleverness tend to underperform, but I have a pet peeve on the topic. I think children and people in general get praised too often for being clever in some way, and not enough for choices showing kindness, generosity of spirit, love.

  2. This is interesting. I think you can balance praise with letting them know they can strive to do more and better. I think I understood from the context that the first set you mentioned were not praised and were more willing to work on new approaches. I think you misssed the word not. As it reads both sets of children were praised, so I had to go back and read it again.

  3. Part of the problem is that we patronising towards our children, and often assume they exist in a state of permanent oversensitivity and stupidity. Kids are smart and tough, but inexperienced, and like any other human, they want to be treated with respect and sensitivity, and learn within their present capacity. What they want and need is support and help. A general guide to parents would be: (1) draw attention to one good thing, (2) comment on something that could be improved, and – crucially – (3) elicit or clearly describe how that improvement can realistically take place right away. To praise to the ceiling is as pointless as rubbishing a child’s efforts. The other assumption is that parents think they can teach, even if they have no training. So if you’re kids are learning to do something, if you want to help, read a book about teaching it – or better, ask the teacher.

  4. Mahmoud says:

    Very interesting, apart from the analysis of the effect of excessive praise, was there any mention of inadequate disciplinary nurture and the effect that may have on a child’s future social, moral and religious outlook, opinions which can become stooped in arrogance, an obstinate nature and a propensity to breach the codes of faith?

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