14 February 2007

Go Easy on the Self Esteem BS! Children Have to Learn to Make an Effort

Do you try to boost your child's self esteem by telling her how smart she is? You may be preparing her for a lifetime of underachievement--even if she really is smart. Professor Carol Dweck has studied different approaches to helping children achieve their potential, and what she found may surprise you.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

If children believe that they can develop their minds beyond their current abilities, they will go on to work harder--and enjoy the challenge more. If children are told simply that they are "smart", they too often feel the need to avoid challenges so as to not threaten this belief about themselves--even if they do happen to be very intelligent.

Dweck's research was published in "Child Development", and was a collaboration between researchers at Stanford and Columbia. It is important to understand what the research actually shows. It shows that children are extremely sensitive to the approach their parents and teachers take to the child's abilities. If the child believes her abilities are "fixed", she will not try as hard as if she believes her abilities are "expandable."

While a child's IQ or "g" may be relatively stable, her mental abilities in terms of learned knowledge and skills are quite flexible and expandable. Too often even educational and child development researchers confuse those concepts. What these studies by Dweck demonstrate very clearly, is that a child's beliefs about her own ability to grow are very important to that child's future effort to achieve.

Parents and teachers can learn a great deal about how to deal with children on this issue. Rather than trying to build up the child's "self esteem", it appears to be more important to build the child's determination to build their minds--"like a muscle."

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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