Kids and Parents vs. Schooling

How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse power of praise, a piece by Po Bronson in New York Magazine, makes a case that praising kids, especially smart ones, may be bad for them. Specifically, Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

Among the early paragraphs are these:

  Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

  But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, “I’m not good at this.” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two — things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

The sad and bad thing about this article is that it fails to challenge two things that desperately need challenging. One is school as a system and the other is IQ tests. Bronson, like most of us, regards compulsory schooling and IQ tests as independent variables — and other factors, such as parental praise, as dependent ones. So it blames parents. Not the creepy caste system made explicit by the admission methods of Thomas’s school. Not puzzles we call tests that our school systems use to measure the essentially unmeasurable: namely, the worth of our children.

On the former I submit to the vast experience and wisdom of John Taylor Gatto, who succeeded excessively as a teacher precisely because he refused to carry out the system’s curriculum. By so doing he carried out what he said was a teacher’s first duty, which is not to pour curricula into the empty vessels (some larger, some smaller) that are then tested for leakage, but rather to “get out of the way everything that prevents a child’s genius from gathering itself”. Gatto succeeded as a teacher because he believed in his kids, as individuals, each unlike all others, each vastly able in his or her own way, each with incalculable value to contribute to the world, each challenged by the need to exceed the bounds of the bell curves the school was built to manage, no matter where those kids fell inside the bounds of those curves.

On the matter of IQ tests, there’s what I said yesterday, plus far more from Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, written decades ago and no less valid today.

Po concludes,

  In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.

  Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem–it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

  But what if he makes the wrong conclusion?

  Can I really leave this up to him, at his age?

My advice to Po, and to all parents, from the perspective of a veteran parent and kid whose own experience with school was instructively both very good and very bad, is this: Believe in their genius, and believe just as much in the immeasurability of that genius.

And remember that what you teach best is what they’ll learn because of you, yet on their own.

The best schools are the ones that are good for every kid. Not just for the ones with labels.

3 comments

  1. David Lifson’s avatar

    Mindset by Carol Dweck addresses this very issue. See http://www.amazon.com/Mindset-Psychology-Success-Carol-Dweck/dp/1400062756/ref=pd_bbs_2/002-8782145-6590436?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1194286086&sr=8-2

    Thomas, the child in your example, is suffering from what Dweck calls a “fixed” mindset. The problem is not only that Thomas is called “smart” – it’s that Thomas is called “smart” only in reaction to various measurements of achievement. Dweck recommends praising worthy effort and process over results.

  2. Gabe Wachob’s avatar

    Hey Doc-
    Love it – growing up as a “smart kid”, I completely understand that dynamic. As a parent, I hadn’t been able to connect the dots until just now.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    -Gabe

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