Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Parenting and Praise

I'm using this post to reflect on my upbringing a little bit, through the jumping-off point of the New York Magazine article just published by Po Bronson about the importance of using specific praise. (Instead of the more general "You're so smart!" or "You did a great job!," saying things like "Your effort showed!") This has been gaining more and more traction in the parenting world (and, I guess, in the larger world of psychology). What I'm not going to do here is write about the article itself- it's fascinating, and you should take a look at it, but I'm thinking now about how my childhood fits into the premise of the article.

This is definitely going to be one of my more intimate posts, and it's possible that I'll have a change of heart in a couple of days and take it down. Let me say, to start off, that I hope it is clear that my parents are not to be blamed for any of my faults. I have amazing parents, who both gave me great self-esteem and encouraged me in all areas. I have, by and large, been relatively successful in things that I wanted to do, and all the thanks for that goes to them and G-d. If in any way in this post I seem to disparage them, please email me and I will attempt to change the language to show its true meaning, because the true meaning is never, ever that they have done anything wrong. The second thing to understand before reading this post is that I am not that smart. I'm smart, sure, I'm not dumb, and I can be clever, but I am not that smart. More importantly, especially for the purposes of this article, I am not as smart as I always thought I was.

I think that's the key here- because I constantly heard growing up about how smart I was, I assumed I was really smart. Like, genius. Top 1%, all that. I think a lot of us, especially people I have been surrounded by (private Jewish school in New Jersey, now Hopkins) have been told all their lives that they're smart. In my mind, at least, that's standard. What good parent doesn't tell their kid that he or she is smart? (Well, according to this article, good parents shouldn't.)

For argument's sake, what the heck, let's say that I was top 1%, or at least top 1% potential. But, as any pre-teen obsessed with An Abundance of Katherines and other John Green books knows, genius means nothing without work and motivation. And even if I had potential, I am pretty convinced that I blew it. Having been told I was smart, and seeing that my sister, who was two years also and never did work, always got great grades and constant praise for her genius, I figured doing more than the bare minimum just wasn't necessary. This carried from my earliest years through high school- I don't think I studied for a single AP exam more than a few hours, and I obviously had mixed results. I didn't do anything for the SATs beyond a few practice tests the week before, whereas my best friends in high school (who, I might add, were all much smarter than I was) all studied.[1]

The laziness is, of course, related to a fear of not succeeding in the way you've been raised to believe you should. Bronson writes:
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.

I can relate to that completely. Things that weren't natural to me, that took actual effort, made me shut down. I believed both that I couldn't do it, that it was too hard, and that, if I were so smart, I would be able to succeed anyway! I have distinct memories of thinking that there was something wrong with the teacher (what chutzpah of me, honestly!), because I was so smart, of course I should be able to understand! I'm embarrassed to recall that, and I feel bad for whoever had to attempt to teach me things I refused to learn. Man, was I a dumb kid. (See?)

I've had many similar conversation with my older sister, who's currently raising a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. We believe, and see in ourselves a little bit, that because we've consistently been told how smart we are (and definitely my sister more than me, believe me), we were lazy and assumed everything would come naturally to us. Therefore my sister dislikes when I or other family members tell my elder niece that she's brilliant or beautiful. She'd rather we focus on specific things, like complimenting the shoes she picked out in the morning, or a drawing she made- something specific.

When I think about my experiences growing up, it's definitely true that I was told that I was smart way more often than I was praised for my effort, in school or in anything else. I remember my parents coming home from parent teacher conferences full of my teachers' praises. But let's play some hypotheticals- how would things have been different if, say, my parents had withheld the praise and focused more on the teachers who had offered ways to improve? What if, instead of being praised for getting a good hit in league softball, I would have been praised for working hard in practice? I honestly don't have memories of being praised for things like that- but is that because my parents' parenting methods were not focused on individualized praise, or because I never worked hard, and therefore never had reason to be praised for it? Depressing, but probably true. but if I had been given suggestions, or praise for work that came after I attempted to fulfill those suggestions, would I have tried harder? It's hard to say what would have happened had I been raised for effort.

Alright, post finished. Please let me know your thoughts- on the article, on your own experiences, anything. If you'd like to keep them private, send me an email, but I think there is value in sharing these types of things so others can appreciate divergent experiences from their own. Even if it includes divulging that you thought you were smarter than your teacher- gosh, that's embarrassing.

[1] Weirdly enough, they also did better than me!


  1. obvi had the exact same experience, which is why i never do a single gdarn thing academically and learning a new skill makes me insane and frustrated when i don't nail it on the first try. seriously, watch me be pathetic at african dance. IT IS ALL MY PARENTS' FAULT

  2. This line of the article is so true about high-school me: "Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery—increasing effort—they view as just further proof of their failure." But I don't think it's our parents' fault at all--I think it was our peers and the high school setting. In my experience, Frisch was an environment where it was a competition: how well you can do with as little effort as possible. (This might have just been my class.) And when I think about people who did better than I did and didn't necessarily put in more effort, it still makes me feel small, which is ridiculous, because being smarter doesn't make you a better person. But when I was in high school, my entire self-worth was centered around being smart. I think I got over it during college, when taking notes and studying was something everyone just did by default, and we had study groups where everybody brought up things they didn't understand and other people answered the questions, and nobody thought I was especially smarter than anyone else, and the best students were (strangely enough) the ones who studied the most and got the best grades.