Praising Effort--from To Love, Honor and VacuumEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s, on the harm we may be doing by praising kids’ innate abilities rather than praising effort.

There’s an awesome scene during the movie The Incredibles where the parents are fighting about whether or not Dad is going to attend his son’s grade three graduation. Dad thinks the whole idea is stupid. “They’re always trying to come up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity!”

This family of superheroes, hiding in the witness protection program where they must pretend to be normal, struggles with not being able to do their best. When young Dash complains to his mom that he never gets to show anyone he’s special, she replies,

“Everybody’s special, Dash,” to which he quips back: “That’s just another way of saying nobody is.”

Last week I wrote about the Occupy protests, and I’d like to take this column to look at where this whining attitude may have originated from. And I think Dash has noticed something important.

We live in a society where everybody is special, and we’re quick to tell kids that.

You’re smart! You’re fun! You’re a winner! We figure that if kids believe this about themselves, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, children who are constantly told they are failures don’t tend to do well. So if we just tell our kids how smart they are, then they’ll try hard!

Turns out, though, that life doesn’t work that way. A few years ago, Carol Dweck, now of Stanford, organized a study of New York City fifth graders. The kids were each asked to solve a fairly easy puzzle. One half of the kids were then told, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was told, “you must have worked really hard.”

Then the kids were offered the choice of two other puzzles. One was the same difficulty level; the other, they were advised, was harder, but they would learn a lot by trying. That’s when things got interesting. Over 90% of the children who were praised for their effort chose the harder puzzle. But over half of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy one.

When we praise kids for their intelligence, rather than their effort, they stop trying.

Are we inadvertently creating a generation who doesn’t like to work hard? Yet that is not the only problem.

By praising people’s innate intelligence rather than their motivation or effort, we’re solidifying the Dunning-Kruger effect, which goes like this: those who are very unskilled at something often don’t understand that skill well enough to realize they are quite hopeless at it. Therefore, they will dramatically overestimate how good they are.

That’s what researchers found when they asked American senior high school students about to write a math exam whether or not they excelled at math. Turns out an overwhelming majority believed they did. Then they asked Korean seniors the same thing, and most rated their math performance far below average. Which group do you think scored higher on that test?

For several decades now our parenting styles and our educational styles have been predicated on this belief that if kids just feel good about themselves, they will work hard and succeed.

What if we’re wrong?

What if what we’re really doing is creating a generation of kids who don’t want to try hard at anything, and yet who simultaneously think they’re smarter and know more than the rest of us? Does this sound at all familiar?

I believe we’d do much better as a society if we stopped praising kids for innate things, like intelligence, or beauty, and instead praised them for things over which they have some control, like motivation, effort, kindness, virtue, or creativity. Then perhaps we’d stop creating these Occupy Whiners protesters, and we’d start raising the next Steve Jobs.

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