The lovely ladies over at PAIL are hosting a book club this month on a book I’ve really wanted to read for a while, Nurture Shock by PO Bronson & Ashley Merryman. The book is a collection of chapters, each one on entirely different topic with studies outlining their findings. The style is much different than other books on parenting – it’s more focused on the study and leaves it at that, there’s not much how-to (though there seems to be plenty of info on what not to do). Admittedly, I’ve only read half the book so far, but the deadline to post is today, so here we go anyway.
I was amazed at the information in almost all of the chapters, but the two chapters that particularly struck me where “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” and “The Inverse Power of Praise.” Race was so incredibly interesting, but I want to focus on the praise chapter, because I was shocked and alarmed about how off my parental instincts were on this.
Before opening Nurture Shock, I heard saying things like “good job!” and “you’re so smart” to your child aren’t the best ways to encourage them to accomplish things (thanks to this article sent to me by a wise and mindful mama friend), so I had tried to temper it back. My boy often amazes me with new skills or words, and “You’re so smart!” or “You’re so strong!” are on the tip of my tongue, but I try to focus on saying things like “You put the ball in the train” or “you made the train go” instead. At first this change felt empty or silly, but I got used to this new way. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes for L at this age, but I think the narration is important at his age as he develops language and ways to communicate, so I was satisfied with this solution for the time being.
I read the chapter in nurture shock which further drove this point home. One study highlighted in the chapter was performed by Professor Dweck at Columbia University. By giving kids just one different line of praise, either praising them for being smart, or for working hard, the fifth-graders in the study were greatly affected by just one line. Those who were told they were smart, didn’t want to try a more difficult test for fear of being found out that they weren’t actually smart. Children who were praised for their effort were willing, able, and happy to take on more difficult tests and even enjoyed being challenged.
In another study, some children in class were taught that intelligence can be developed with effort instead of it being just a natural talent. The children who were told that the more effort they put in, the smarter they become drastically improved their test scores.
It all seems so simple, praise your child for working hard and figuring things out, things that they have some control over, and they’ll enjoy working hard and trying new things. But, as the study says, just ONE LINE of praise can affect your child’s behavior so much. How, as parents, will we be able to help our children focus on what matters – effort – in a world where all of these messages coming from so many different adults can affect them so drastically? ACK!
Personally, I can’t remember much of how my parents praised or didn’t praise me. I worked hard in school and at sports in high school, I was never the smartest, but I did my best. I know early on in my life, I had zero self esteem and my Mom and Dad really had to help me along. I was almost held back in the first grade because I was very shy (literally would not talk) and not at all confident. I think this is one of the main reasons my instinct was to instill confidence in spades to my son: I didn’t want him to ever have to struggle with knowing he was smart. I was completely unaware of how detrimental that kind of praise could be. Additionally, my Dad’s Mother was the exact opposite of a high-praising parent – my Father was constantly told he wasn’t smart by his own mother. A few years before she passed, I remember sitting with my Grandmother in my parents’ beautiful house that my (intelligent!) father worked so hard to build and I heard my Grandma say “But your Dad isn’t very smart.”
My Dad has dealt with so many self-esteem issues in his life because of her, and I didn’t realize how much watching that interaction and all of my Dad’s struggles has caused my parental instincts to swing so far in the exact opposite direction (literally until just now, while writing this up). I’m so happy I’ve read these articles and this book and can temper things back a bit before it became a problem for my child.
My parents let me find my own way, and after some struggles early on, I did. I’m a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and more than that, I found my own confidence through working hard to accomplish my goals. It took me a while to get there, but I did, and I’ll have to let my child find his own way too. I’ll provide him with the support he needs and instill in him the value that he to work hard and he can accomplish anything, and that persistence, above all, is what’s important.
Based on the first few comments I received, I’m going to assume I didn’t get what I was trying to say across that well. My take away from both my personal life and the book is this: it is very important for our children to know that we are proud, they are loved, and we think they are intelligent and capable of whatever they put their minds to. But it is also important that we don’t pepper them unnecessarily with praise – as I was doing early on with my son. Really, every little thing he did I would exclaim “good job! You’re so smart!” and this probably would have continued if I hadn’t read these things. Because I felt so strongly I wanted my son to have confidence and know he was smart that I was way overdoing it. It will be interesting to see how my perspective changes as my son goes to school, is around other children, and starts to be graded in school. I want him to be confident in his abilities and learn the value of hard work, but I don’t want him to be in search of my (or his teacher’s) “good job! You’re so smart!”. I want him to find pleasure in learning and figuring things out, and building his own confidence. I want to be there for him to help him build confidence when he needs me. I know how important this all is because I still see my grown, successful father struggling with confidence and self worth to this day because of his childhood.
Nurture Shock is a very thought-provoking and important book on thinking about children, that I would encourage every parent (and educator) to read.