The self-esteem movement taught us to think that compliments gave children self-esteem, and the bigger the compliment the better. In fact, the self-esteem gurus were telling us to dole out praise for our children's talents as often as possible. This really sank into the public psyche and even became plain old commonsense.
However, I had already been studying vulnerable and resilient children for decades and I knew it was the vulnerable ones who were focused on how much talent or intelligence they had. This is not a good thing. So, we (my graduate students and I) wondered whether praising children's intelligence would actually backfire. It might put children into a fixed mindset by implying that you can look at their performance and see their underlying intelligence. And it might also be telling them, "That's what I value in you," putting even more pressure on them to be smart at all times and at all costs.
So, in a series of experiments, we put this to the test. Lo and behold we found that praising intelligence had many repercussions, most of them negative. After children were so praised, they did not want to attempt a challenging task, even one that they could learn from. They wanted to stick with things in their comfort zone and burnish their "gifted" label like a trophy.
When we did give them challenging work later on, their confidence, their enjoyment, and their performance plummeted. They could only enjoy and thrive on easier work that did not threaten the idea that they were smart. Finally, when they were later asked to report their scores to another student, almost 40% of the students praised for their intelligence lied. They needed to appear smart. In other words, intelligence praise, rather than raising self-esteem, put children into a fixed mindset with all of its vulnerabilities.
What's the alternative? We've found that "process" praise--such as praise for effort or strategies--works best. When we gave children process praise after a job well done, they then wanted hard tasks they could learn from. When we gave them the hard tasks, their confidence, enjoyment, and performance remained high. What's more, they told the truth when they reported their scores to another student.
Make no mistake, the kids enjoyed the intelligence praise, but their joy was short-lived. That praise made them unsuited to take on challenges. I think this is what happens to many students these days. They've been praised so much for their talents or abilities that when things become harder, they don't know how to cope.
The basic fallacy of the self-esteem movement was the idea that we could hand children self-esteem on a silver platter by showering them with intelligence praise. They were wrong--intelligence praise makes children fragile. Instead we can give children the tools they need to build their own self-esteem by helping them develop a growth mindset. Process praise is an important part of this and it involves showing children how much we value it when they take on hard tasks, when they come up with new strategies for addressing a problem, when they show sustained effort on a task, and when they struggle through difficulty.
The growth mindset can also be taught to children directly, as I mentioned earlier. Parents and teachers can teach children about the brain and how it grows with learning. They can compliment them on growing new brain connections when they learn something new. Recently, someone told to me that his 5-year-old son was struggling with his piano practice and, as he went over to help him, his son turned around and said, "Don't worry Dad, I have a growth mindset."
We've also created an on-line program, called "Brainology," to teach kids a growth mindset. It's aimed at adolescents and it's a colorful, fun, interactive program that teaches them about their brain and how they can make it work better. (You can take a look at it at www.brainology.us) Children tell us that the very image of their brain forming new connections motivates them in school and many teachers have told us that it has changed their classes into eager learners.
I know about the intelligence praise from personal experience. In high school, I stopped myself from taking a more challenging, higher-level math class because I was afraid I wouldn't do well. I considered myself an impostor - not half as smart as 'they' thought and deathly afraid that I would do something that would expose my limitations to everyone. And I had recurring dreams about not finding the classroom or that it had mysteriously moved or a staircase that refused to deliver me to the right place in time for my class. I continued to have those dreams, long after I left school behind. But each time, I would wake up in a cold sweat. So, that fear of not measuring up can linger for years, with all its unintended ill-effects.
You give a great demonstration of different mindsets of small children doing puzzles. Can you please share that one with our readers?
A lot of my research deals with how children and adults cope with difficulty. From the start, I was fascinated by this issue because, although I had always done really well, I was worried that some day I might not. As you describe, behind the lifetime of success was a lurking fear that a failure could erase it all.
So, I wanted to peer into people's minds to see what failure meant to them and how they coped with it. In my earliest studies, with children, I was startled by what I saw. Some of the children, as I expected, saw a failure as the end of the world. It discrediting their abilities, and they became discouraged or defensive. But others, to my amazement, seemed to relish it. For example, one 10-year-old boy, when we gave him problems he couldn't solve, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, "I love a challenge." Another, also confronting problems he couldn't quite solve, looked up at us and said, "You know, I was hoping this would be informative!" In no way did they see themselves as failing. Instead, they saw an opportunity to stretch themselves and learn.
On the one hand, I gawked at these children as though they were creatures from outer space. On the other hand, I knew that they understood something very valuable. Then and there I was determined to learn their secret and, if possible, teach it to others. Over the years, as I discovered the mindsets, I could finally understand how, with a growth mindset, a challenge and even a setback could seem like a great opportunity rather than a disaster in the making. And, with our Brainology workshop, we have developed a tool to give this knowledge to all students.
When we have a fixed mindset, we have to arrange our lives to avoid failures and to preserve our images of ourselves as smart. Even our dreams are invaded by this obsession. In a growth mindset, we can venture out there taking the challenges as they come, and fully accomplish what we are capable of.
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