“…praising children for intelligence, rather than for effort, sapped their motivation.”

Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn. Dweck’s insight launched a new field of educational psychology—achievement goal theory.

My friend Sheldon sent me a link to this Stanford article on the psychology of response to failure and what motivates kids to give up or overcome failure.

In a nutshell, the study by a psychology professor Carol Dweck, was on why some children who think they’re talented, gifted or intelligent, do not want to train on developing their talent because they believe that they’re already gifted.

Worse is how some children, gifted or otherwise, think that training would demonstrate a lack of that ability.

It also talked about why some children give up after attempting and failing at a problem a few times because they think it has something to do with their limited ability or intelligence, compared to those who are instead motivated by failure to try and try again until they get it.

Sheldon brought up a good point that resonated with me: That our students rack up them As without actually learning.

When I was growing up – and I believe this is still the case – a lot of us believed that As were all that mattered, although we’d hated most of the subjects and had forgotten everything we’d studied one month after exams.

Although I don’t remember ever giving up on something simply because I thought that my ability was limited and therefore rendering any effort useless, the belief that I was somehow not as intelligent as my sister had prevailed throughout much of my life as a student.

Eunice was a straight As student, won awards and scholarships, and was clearly gifted in learning and was far more disciplined. As a result, she was also conditioned to believe that she was smarter, and that somehow propelled her to greater heights.

I, on the other hand, was considered average, and perhaps extremely poor by today’s standards of 21 As! And because I’d been brought up to believe that Eunice was always going to be smarter because she had bigger, better brains, my parents’ expectations of me were less stringent, I went through school very relaxed about my performance.

It came to a point that when I actually did get the As, my parents were shocked. I still remember when I’d called my dad on the public phone outside my school to tell him I’d gotten seven As out of eight subjects for my SRP (a pass or die exam at Form Three, which is in the American school system, when kids move from Junior to Senior High, except that if you fail, you don’t get to move).

The first thing my dad said was, “Did you cheat?”.

As insensitive as it was, the remark made me laugh. I felt as though I’d lucked out, instead of having worked my ass off to get the As.

Truly, it is a miracle I can read and write today.

One of the things about becoming a parent is realising just how hard it is not to worry if one’s child is stupid. What’s harder is resisting the urge to compare one’s child against his or her peers. Comparison, is after all, a scientific method, no matter how cruel it is. It is a natural instinct to want to know that as a parent, what you’re doing is on the right track.

One of the worst things people – at least people I know – compare is intelligence.

“Aiyo, Rae still not walking yet ah?” my relatives would ask not too politely when she was only eight or nine months old.

“Can Skyler speak in sentences yet? No? How come? Is she slow?” my mother would ask worriedly, not at all conscious that she is coming across as rude.

Do these questions have anything to do with my child’s ability to walk or talk? Hardly. Instead, they are a reflection of one’s constant concern of whether one’s child or grandchild is, alas, stupid.

And before you know it, your child is failing Maths and you’ll be saying things like, “Ah but she didn’t learn to talk in sentences until she was 12, so whaddya expect?”

There have been pros and cons to the way I’ve been conditioned to think that I’m only as smart as I am on the Big Chart of People In My Life. On the one hand, because I don’t expect much of myself, I am very easy going about these things with my own kids as well. On the other, I don’t try very hard to push myself, or my kids, and Lokes is this way as well. So unless I really LIKE something, I won’t try very hard to be better at it.

Of course, at the back of mind, I’m often paranoid that I am dooming my kids to a mediocre existence by not obsessing about how smart (or not)  they are or can be. Often, these bouts of self-chastisement end with me taking a chill pill and going, let’s make things interesting by leaving it to the forces of nature.

They will end up needing therapy one way or another anyway, right?

And so my dear parents, reflections for this week are:

Are you determining what your child’s abilities are from what you are observing today by praising their intelligence instead of their efforts?

Do you believe that if your child is not talented or gifted, that she can never be the next Einstein (a popular yardstick, Mr Einstein is for us young mothers) or Michaelangelo? That intelligence and abilities are innate and therefore cannot be developed or changed?

If not, how do you ensure that your child becomes mastery-oriented instead of talent-oriented? That they look at failure as a chance to learn to overcome a challenge?

The first step? To stop using words like ‘clever’ and ‘smart’. Instead, praise them for their efforts using words like:

“Yay, you did it! That was a good job!”

I know this may sound very Westernised to some of the Asian parents reading this blog, and we all know how our Asian – particularly Chinese – mentalities can be when it comes to school grades and performance. We tend to equate it directly to how well we will do in life after school. 

The fact is there are scientific values in these studies. It’s not about who came up with them. For me, at least, it’s about making sure our kids know how to cope with failure. That they don’t give up because they think they simply don’t have the brains for it.

And that they don’t kill themselves because they did not get the 17As their friends (or the children of their parents’ friends) got.

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