I 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.”