March 05, 2007

Praise and where it takes you

I have been mulling over the ideas in a recent cover article in New York magazine, by Po Bronson, titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise." This is a rather long article, but the gist of it is that children seem to respond a lot better to praise that is specific. They want to know exactly not what they have done correct, not that they are good kids. Because, the research thinking goes, if they think they're good and smart then 1) they can't figure out the exact effort that got them to that point and 2) if they're so good why should they try harder. Sincerity of praise is also important.

Bronson admits at the end that he's a praise junkie and that it's harder for him to stop abstractly praising than he thought it would be. He writes, "I’d thought “praise junkie” was just an expression—but suddenly, it seemed as if I could be setting up my son’s brain for an actual chemical need for constant reward." Earlier in the article he writes, "After reading Carol Dweck’s research, I began to alter how I praised him, but not completely. I suppose my hesitation was that the mind-set Dweck wants students to have—a firm belief that the way to bounce back from failure is to work harder—sounds awfully clich├ęd: Try, try again.But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification."

Researchers learned that kids who were taught that the brain is a muscle and that the more you worked it, like any muscle, the better it performed, performed better in school and in homework than those who were not taught how the brain worked. They could understand the logic of the idea of keeping trying to get their brain at its peak performance levels. They could see a reason for homework and did it better.

Self-esteem by itself is not as great as it's been proposed. Failure leads to the abililty to figure out how to not fail and then how to succeed. A recent study shows that college students are quite narcissistic. There has been some commentary and some research about the current group of people who are in their twenties who even admit to being coddled too much. We'll see. One thing is for sure...parenting makes you realize that you can make mistakes, but you have to keep trying.

Thankfully, we have the humor of British writers to have developed the genre of Bad Mothers Club literature. Unlike Americans who take things far too seriously, the British are usually able to swallow their pride and publish self-deprecating, but funny, realizations in slightly smart books. Check out the Bad Mothers Club (incorporate Bad Dads) website.

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