Praising Mediocrity

Just when I thought I had really gotten this parenting thing down in regards to how to talk to my 2-year old, out comes Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s New York Magazine article “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise” to force me to reevaluate what it will mean to be a good parent. He’s only two, but even still, lavishing him with praise over the coloring job he did, or the fact that he is a “good boy,” will now be yet another thing I will ask myself at the end of the day “was that the right thing to do?”

If you haven’t seen it yet, the article is built primarily around research from a psychologist named Dr. Carol Dweck, who performed a ten-year study in the New York schools based on the way children responded to praise. In short, those students praised for their intelligence, the “smart” kids, performed poorly on a series of tests aimed at evaluating the types of praise given to students. Inversely, “regular” kids were given the same tests and praised for their effort, what Dweck calls “process praise,” and did better on successive tests and in the overall study.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,”
she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their
success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s
control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

As I read it, I kept thinking back to all the students I have taught over the years and wondered how many of them I called “smart” or praised for being “intelligent.” Did I damage them?

Probably not, but I do like this information for several reasons. The first is that it begins to make sense, especially when I remember it in terms of sports. The best coaches I ever had in the various sports that I played were ones who, through their direction, forced me to work hard, and did not ever reward me for dumb luck or athletic skill. Thinking about this in light of Dweck’s research, they were indeed using “process praise,” rather than praising an innate ability. Furthermore, the anti-self-esteem backlash I have been hearing in faculty rooms since I began teaching now seems to have merit. Teachers that I have been in contact with for the most part have the child’s best interest in mind, and it makes sense that showering a student with praise for mediocre results did not make sense to them. Praise them for accomplishments, but know when to stop. We have become too wrapped up in the fact that our children need to feel good about themselves, maybe we are championing mediocrity, to quote Mr. Incredible.

Bronson’s last few paragraphs speak about how he is coming off of his addiction to praise, not for him, but for his 5-year old son. I can see how we, as parents and teachers, become stuck in the overpraising rut, and it is something that Dweck and others have described as a means of controlling behavior. Children do something we like, for example cleaning up their toys when they finish playing, and we heap praise on them because we want to see that behavior repeated. It’s effective, but what effect does that have on our children? Are we causing them to be praise-addicted? There is some science to that, and Bronson references that in the article, but I don’t know how you would tell parents or teachers to stop doing that. I am going to watch this one for a while. His blog has been fairly active over the last few days regarding that.

Periodic updates to come as my son and I work through this change in philosophy.

Image Credit: Dark Horse Comics/Pixar, Brad Bird

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One thought on “Praising Mediocrity

  1. If you liked that article, you should consider reading some Alfie Kohn. Unconditional Parenting is a good choice and, specifically about the praise issue, Punished by Rewards is an oldie but a goodie. Lots of research citations in both.

    Warning, they will not make you feel good about your parenting (at least they didn’t make me feel good). But I’m trying each day to get better . . .

    And for teaching, The Schools Our Children Deserve is also very good.

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