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Damning with the wrong praise

English: Boy in front of jungle gym

It’s a jungle out there, kids. (Wikipedia)

Now, I am not usually someone who enjoys taking her husband’s advice. You know what I mean? Girl, I know you do. As a pediatrician, he often pretend-casually tosses me articles and books about child rearing that he comes across, full of what I am sure are good parenting practices. That I am meant to read stat. I know there is a lot of value in these bits he passes on, but part of me wants to say, yeah so? I’ve got a deal with them all day and then read a book about how I’m doing it all wrong after they go to sleep, when I can instead watch a TV show without any talking animals in it? I’m the mother; I know what’s best, right? And that’s the part of me usually gets to say what it wants.

“I think I know what I’m talking about here!” he says in a huff, when I blow off his reading tips. Harumph to you too.

Cover of "NurtureShock: New Thinking Abou...

Cover via Amazon

But I’ll admit that recently he gave me some reading material that I will take to heart (See? I do listen sometimes). In book called NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I’ve promised to read in its entirety just after I read this stack of old Hello! magazines (And also! That DVR won’t empty itself!), there is a chapter called “The Inverse Power of Praise.” The gist: when you praise your child, like we all do, you should praise effort towards specific tasks, and not general ability. For example:

Not: “You finished that whole Lego Star Wars set all by yourself?? For ages 8+? And what are you, FIVE? You are so smart!!!!!!!! Exclamation point!”

Instead: “You put that Sarlacc together all by yourself? I am so proud that worked so hard at that and you did it!”

“The presumption is,” the book states, “that if a child believes he’s smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that the children do not sell their talents short.” And as Dr. Carol Dweck, who has pioneered much of this way of thinking, says, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game, look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” NurtureShock, as well as Dweck’s research, argues that if a child is constantly told he or she is smart (or, I extrapolate, a natural athlete or musician, say) he won’t risk the damage to his self-esteem by attempting something difficult or challenging, and failing.

The book also quotes NYU professor Judith Brook: “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing.” So the praise, which we can’t help but give, is better directed toward specific goals. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding for failure.”

OK, that’s enough quoting. I think I’ve proved that I read it. Suffice it to say, it gave me pause.

I give C the third degree on the walk home from school every day, and I get some facts out of him, like what he did in gym or math, or some other bit of schoolroom arcana, but it’s hard to put it all together to get a full picture of his day. It’s a mystery, it’s omerta; it’s being five, I guess.

So besides the cryptic comments about “choice time” and “work board” and being the “lunch helper” and all of the other byzantine rituals of school he now holds dear (“I don’t tell anyone when I have to go the the bathroom, I just go!”), my best vantage point from which to observe C’s new life is on the playground after dismissal. I watch him and his friends dash back and forth, leaping and cutting swaths through the air, falling tragically to the ground, then touching black to regain their superpowers, or touching something blue to transfer them.

The hotspot on the playground, for all of the kindergartners at C’s school, is the monkey bars. It’s where it’s at. Daily I watch as six or seven of them clamor over each other, each trying desperately to achieve mastery of this six-foot row of rungs. They look like kiddie versions of the dancers in that old Paula Abdul video where they are all flinging themselves over some scaffolding. But it’s where their whole day boils down; you can see who’s agressive, who hangs back, hear what they really think. I heard a girl there call C “mean” because “he’s blond.” “But you’re blonde,” her mother said. Touche, mama. Or, nanny-nanny-poo-poo, which I am told is the thing to say in these situations, to you too.

Bavarian horticultural exhibition 2010 in Rose...

Now that’s a challenge! Monkey bars of wooden poles, 9 metres high at a German expo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But hey, she’s under stress. Have you, adults, ever tried crossing the monkey bars? It’s hard! I tried it recently and I couldn’t make it one rung without deep pain. But maybe that’s just me. I couldn’t do them when I was a kid either. Maybe its because my parents never praised my effort, just assuming that I would be awesome at them. No, I don’t think that’s it. I think they knew those Olympic dreams were never going to get off the ground.

Since the first day of school, C has been determined to make it all the way across the monkey bars. Every day I watch him wait his turn (“You’re only supposed to go across in one direction!”), and then take his first one-handed swing. For weeks he fell to the ground as he tried to get to the first rung. It didn’t seemed to bother him; he just kept doing it over and over again until his friends called him to some other business. And while C was at the monkey bars, little T was climbing the play structure steps gingerly, then more steadily, to the top of the slide, standing there, then turning around and stepping back down. No amount of cajoling could get him down the slide.

Then one day, T stood at the top of the slide, waited for me to look at him, and slid all the way down. I cheered and hollered. Then, he couldn’t be stopped. And while catching T at the bottom, moving him out of the way of a fifth grader that was coming barrelling down after, I looked over at the bars; C was swinging all the way across.

“Did you see me?” he said, hopping down and running over.

“I did! I did! That was amazing! Wait till we tell Daddy!” I went ape, as it were.

As we were walking home, over the sound of T’s devastated mewling at being torn away from him new favorite thing, I said to C, “Do you see what you did on the monkey bars? You couldn’t do it at first, and then you kept trying, and then you did it! Do you see what you can do when you practice? If there is something you want to do, keep trying…” I hammered the point home in as many ways as I could: you wanted to accomplish something, you made an effort, and you succeeded. Well done. He beamed.

I don’t want to be one of those parents who carries her child through life on a cushion of praise, hands outstretched constantly to break every (figurative) fall. I guess, aside from keeping them healthy, what I want most is to teach my boys not to fear challenges. To aim for goals, and rise to meet them. And to be able to cope, and pick themselves up when they, as they inevitably will sometimes, fail. If they can do that, I think, they will have the tools they need to be in control of their own success, and strive for lives as big and as broad as they want them to be, rather than take a safe, middling, path. They can put to use whatever attributes they might have: intelligence, athletic ability, Lego skills, rather than lean on perceived strengths, taking them for granted.

It feels a little strange to hold my tongue when I want to call one of them smart. “Sweet lord, you are a f***ing genius!” are not words you often hear in our house, unless I am saying them to myself when I’ve figured out how fit all the sippy cups in the cabinet without them all falling on my head. Instead, I try to replace that impulse with a wordier compliment about their efforts, and keep the kvelling in my head.

Hopefully, this philosophy will serve them well. We’ll see. Look, it’s worked for their dad! My not taking his advice? I just don’t want him to get a swelled head! That’s it! It’s not because I don’t want to read articles. No, I do it for you, dear!

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. LLZ #

    You wrote this all by yourself? I’m so proud you worked so hard and you did it?

    December 12, 2012
  2. LLZ #

    Sorry, !!!!

    December 12, 2012
  3. Jolie #

    It is a struggle, isn’t it?
    We attended G’s school concert last night. An event he has been talking about for weeks, making sure we knew the date and time, practicing the poem/songs, deciding what to wear that would match his yellow-with-black-stripes cat ears and tail. Turns out this “concert,” during holiday season no less, was a cat vs. dog showdown complete with a call and response battle and a “Let’s Just Be Friends” conclusion. It was THE WORST excuse for a presentation by 6 and 7 year olds we can even imagine. Seriously, the music teacher (she’s new, but still) should be ashamed of herself.
    And yet, my point being, G fished for praise as we tried desperately to wipe the looks of shock and disgust from our faces. He has asked repeatedly (last night and this morning) which song was our favorite. I just keep turning it back on him. He doesn’t need me to offer disingenuous praise, he just needs to relive his enjoyment of the experience.

    December 13, 2012
    • That brings up another part of it – just like everything else, we need to be role models of good effort for our kids as well – what are kids supposed to think when grown-ups don’t try their best? A cat and dog what now?

      December 13, 2012

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