Little Geniuses

What kind of praise do kids need to hear?

My mother abstains from Mother’s Day. She thinks the whole thing is forced and commercial and not worth the fuss. In asking around, I turned up only one other friend whose mother similarly sniffs at the day as a “Hallmark holiday.” My own feeling is that while my kids are small, I’m happy to forfeit Mother’s Day in exchange for not having to engineer a Father’s Day hoopla for my husband. But once the holiday isn’t a bartered work exchange, I’m planning to milk it.

Motherhood, after all, is already all about self-abnegation. Why give up the one day of praise to which we’ve entitled ourselves? The kids eat up far more than their share of the praise pie the rest of the year—though lately we’re being told the boosting and raving isn’t very good for them. That’s a killjoy note worth hearing, though we should approach it with a bit of skepticism.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month on the travails of employers faced with twenty- and thirtysomethings who’ve been told how brilliant and wonderful and special they are all their lives. The articletells of a consultant who counsels a manager to praise young employees for showing up on time after a pattern of lateness. How to conjure a compliment out of “pathetic” and “entitled”? A personality test for narcissism given to college students every year shows an inexorable rise, with today’s students being on average 30 percent more narcissistic than the students of 1982. Substitute “self-esteem” for “narcissism” and the results suddenly look rosy, but you simply can’t, because all the $10 trophies and the lavish praise of mediocrity, or even failure, doesn’t really bolster kids’ self-worth. They drink the Kool-Aid, but they also know it.

New York magazine offers a solution of sorts, in the person of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In a February piece * called “How Not To Talk to Your Kids,” the magazine lays out Dweck’s prescription—also found in her recent book, Mindset—that it’s not praise itself that’s the problem, it’s the kind of praise we heap on our offspring. We tell them that they’re smart or athletic or musically gifted, when what we should be praising is hard work and effort. Tell a kid he’s smart and the only place he’s got to go is down, so he’ll avoid challenges and freeze at failure. Tell a kid you admire his determination and he’ll keep plugging away, bettering himself all the while.

In my favorite Dweck-inspired experiment, discussed in the New Yorkarticle, researcher Elizabeth Blackwell divided middle-school students at a magnet school into two groups. One group got eight weeks of study skills. The other group got study skills plus lessons on brain plasticity and neuron growth. The second group improved their grades and math scores. Tell kids their brains can get bigger and—voilà!—they do. The kids in this experiment happened to come from a mostly minority school, but Dweck says her findings are the same across races and classes.

Findings like these resonate with the better-known studies by Claude Steele, in which groups of students who tend to fall prey to stereotypes—black students not being smart, women not being good at math—fared worse when told they were being tested for ability and better when told they were taking a test designed to generally measure problem-solving. Black students and women also score more poorly when they’re simply asked to check a box for race or gender before test taking. Steele attributes this to “stereotype threat”—the idea that a reminder that you’re part of a group about which expectations are low will worsen your test score. Being told that you’re smart is of course the opposite; you’re being stereotyped as high-achieving. But Dweck’s point is that whatever the stereotype, it’s a distraction. This has intuitive appeal: After all, the best way to psych someone out is to tell them that they just can’t miss.

If this all sounds a bit pat and absolutist, however, that’s because it is. Dweck is so devoted to the power of her theory that when she slips and calls her husband “brilliant” for solving a hard problem they’d been mulling, she writes in her book, “Needless to say, I was appalled at what I had done, and as the look of horror spread across my face, he rushed to reassure me, ‘I know you meant it in the most “growth-minded” way.’ ” Blech. I wonder also about the leaps Dweck makes from school to home and then back to school again. There’s evidence for Steele’s insight that it’s a bad idea to make kids self-conscious about their innate ability right before a test. But does that really mean that parents should zealously guard against sneaking in any praise for a kid’s smarts among all the carefully coached “good efforts”? Dweck seems a bit overwrought when she warns that “every word and action from parent to child sends a message.” She also probably overestimates parents’ power. And I couldn’t help cringing at her sample “good” praise: “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.” “The passion you put into that piano piece gives me a real feeling of joy. How do you feel when you play it?” There’s a fine line, it seems, between praise that is properly supportive and insipidly intrusive. I’m pretty sure my sons would rather hear, “Hey, nice playing,” after a soccer game than be invited to share their ball-kicking emotions.

Still, with the specter dangling before us of offices in which employees need constant head-patting, who can really argue with better acquainting kids with the value of hard work rather than gushing over their supposed genius? Especially because by definition most kids can’t be in the tippy top of academic or athletic or musical achievement, which means we’re lying to them when we insist otherwise, a deception that they will surely sniff out. For all those parents who respond to every instance of their children’s mediocrity by insisting on their brilliance (and by blaming teachers and coaches for not recognizing it): Listen to Carol Dweck, and cut it out.

Isn’t it more likely, though, that most of us are in the muddled middle? We may hope our kids are smarter than they are and sometimes tell them so. And inevitably, underlying some of this praise is a suspect form of self-love: We take pride in them out of a puffed-up sense that they’re reflecting our best selves. But at the same time, we want them to try hard at school or sports or music because we know they won’t get anywhere unless they do and because we know how good it feels to put in that sort of effort. We’re not out to turn them into child-adults who think they deserve a gold star for turning up on time. Or so I hope, anyway. And since it’s Mother’s Day, I give us the benefit of the doubt.

Correction, May 11, 2007: This piece originally stated that the New York article appeared in April. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)