How Not To Talk To Kids

{Exercise} Before you read the article I’m linking to I want you to try something. The article is about praising children so write what you think is the best way to praise children if you want to improve their self-esteem.

After reading Po Bronson’s New York Magazine article How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise you may find yourself thinking “of course that is how it is”.

Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

{Exercise} Were you correct with what you wrote down before reading Bronson’s piece?

I have a psychology degree and did learn about conditioned reinforcement and reward scheduling, but it never struck me that the things they learned from experimenting on dogs, pigeons and rats apply to human beings as well. If the rat will walk a maze 100’s of times to earn a food pellet 5% of the time, the child will read 100 pages to get praised for reading 5 of them. It makes sense now.

You are born with “talent”, which is what we are praising when we tell someone that they are smart or good. But children do not know how they came to be smart or good. Since it’s just something they are, they have no idea how to make more of it.

As a parent or mentor you can only influence behavior. Experience has taught us that you need to put a lot of effort into actualizing talent potential. If a child is to remain smart or good, they are going to need to continue to put sustained effort into achieving it.