When I first read the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, I was blown away by the realization of how much I had been doing in the name of helping my children that was actually not helping and, in all probability, might even be holding them back. I couldn’t put the book down; I folded page corners and took notes, I talked about concepts with friends and family, I was hooked. One of the things I loved about this book was that the authors weren’t interested in putting parents down; rather, they wanted to open our eyes to the amazing scientific research that is out there that can help us all be more connected, effective and understanding parents.
Last week I had the good fortune to be invited to hear one of the co-authors of NurtureShock, Ashley Merryman, speak at a small gathering here in Los Angeles. In addition to being a journalist and author, Ms. Merryman is an attorney and was a speech writer during the Clinton administration. She’s also surprisingly funny for someone who spends so much time writing about science! She began her talk last week by stating that according to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85% of parents think it’s important to praise children for being smart. From the book, NurtureShock:
“The presumption is 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 children do not sell their talents short.
But a growing body of research — and a new study from the trenches of the New York City public school system — strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”
Praise for intelligence works…until a moment of failure.
Merryman brought up the groundbreaking research done by Carol Dweck which began with a group of 5th grade students who were either praised for their intelligence or praised for their effort. Those praised for their intelligence ended up choosing to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed when offered a choice of simple or more difficult tasks later on. Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder set of tasks. These results continued in numerous follow up tests. Why? Dweck’s studies show that “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
How do we motivate children if our previous plan of building up their self-esteem by praising them was actually backfiring? She explained that there are two kinds of motivation:
The thing you love to do and which you would do regardless of whether you were paid or applauded for it. Hmmm. Any other writers out there know this feeling?
Motivation caused by everything else: money, recognition, approval etc. The real world is full of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors. The issue with extrinsic motivation is that your motivation and desire is based on someone else. Thus it is inherently temporary; as long as the praise goes on or the money comes in, you are willing to do the job.
Extrinsic motivators have no correlation to academic success “except that,” Merryman wryly joked, “in 3rd grade that fact gets stronger”. In other words, giving your children money for doing chores, extra computer time for doing well on a test or saying “good job” whenever they put away their toys simply keeps them needing those “rewards” to be motivated. They have not learned to do things simply for the joy of just doing them.
Studies Show What Our Brains Needs To Learn
Merryman mentioned a UC Berkeley study that discovered that motivation acts like dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is released when we receive a reward, but what researchers found was that dopamine is also released when one is intrinsically motivated, thus showing that motivation is, in and of itself, a reward! And the additional benefit was that this focused, heightened awareness allows people to learn better.
Additionally, another study by Carol Dweck and Jennifer Mangels secretly separated Columbia University college students with a cleverly designed questionnaire into two groups: the “Grade-Hungry” and the “Knowledge-Hungry”. Then, given a rigged test they could not pass, the brain activity differences were measured. One of the fascinating things learned was that the brain activity of those who were “grade-hungry” plummeted when they got wrong answers and only the amygdala (or, “fear center”) was lit up. Thus, one of the major things this study showed was that people who are more focused on grades and status literally can’t learn because their brain can’t process in the normal way. To read Po Bronson’s terrific summary of this research, take a look at this Newsweek article entitled “This Is Your Brain On A Test”.
What Would The Tiger Mom Think?
Remember when we were all discussing Amy Chua’s parenting style? Perhaps some parents believe that motivating children comes down to a choice between being strict and demanding or being weak and permissive. But Ashley Merryman believes this is actually a false choice and she brought up yet another fascinating research study:
Both Chinese and American mothers were told (falsely) that their children had scored below average on an IQ test and that they would be re-taking the test. Then, hidden cameras watched as American mothers were warm, supportive and connected as they offered their children snacks, talked about what they were going to do later, and passed the time until the test was to be re-taken. The Chinese mothers on the other hand, immediately told their children they scored poorly and that they had work to do before taking the test again. Their warmth and support was directed toward the test. Both sets of children improved the second time, but the Chinese children improved twice as much. The study concluded that warmth and connectedness that is directive has a greater effect on achievement.
How Do I Get Better?
As parents, we all want to encourage and support our children. We all want them to feel good about themselves and be motivated learners. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already doing a pretty great job of helping your kids. The question is though, how can we do it better? Here are some ideas from Ashley Merryman:
“That’s the best picture ever!”
If you praise your child’s artwork in this way what you’re really saying is that she just can’t do any better than she’s already done. Why would she keep trying? Instead, describe what you see, praise effort, ask questions. Children hear so much empty praise that they stop believing it by age 7. By age 12, children actually believe that if they are praised it means they are doing poorly (“if I was doing well, I would instead be told I wasn’t working at my potential” is the common sentiment expressed).
So many of us are now familiar with the sports classes in which every child wins a medal and no one keeps score. This feels right, doesn’t it? No one walks away feeling bad about themselves. But how do children learn to deal with disappointment? Competition spurs you to work harder and peer pressure can actually be motivating.
Yes, it always comes back to modeling. We are our children’s primary teachers! Let your kids see you making a mistake and more importantly, let them hear you say that it’s OK to make a mistake and that you don’t expect perfection.
Don’t impose your judgment.
Ask your child “Have you worked hard on this?” when he or she hands in a homework assignment. Let your child decide for himself. Kids need to develop a sense of when something is good or the best. In NurtureShock there is a section in which Merryman’s co-author, Po Bronson, describes a technique he uses with his young daughter: “Every night, she comes home from preschool with a page of penmanship, filled with whatever letter she learned that day. I ask her to circle the best example on each line — so she’ll recognize the difference between a good one and a better one.”
What if my child just says “It’s good enough”?
Try to get inside your child’s head and ask questions. Are you bored? Is the work too hard? Is it too easy? It’s easier for your child to say “I don’t care” than it is to say “I need help”.
What if my child always gets 100% on tests?
This doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, does it? But it does beg the question: “Are you bored? Do you need something more challenging?”
Praise what your child does, not who they are.
Kids who get constantly praised get hooked on dopamine. Intermittent reinforcement teaches persistence.
But doesn’t high self-esteem mean my kids will do better in school?
In 1984 a committee to build self-esteem was established in California. 15,000 studies later no correlation was shown that increased self-esteem leads to high achievement. In actuality, it’s high achievement that leads to increased self-esteem. Interesting, no?
NurtureShock is an astounding book which covers topics like why kids lie, why white parents don’t talk about race, why siblings really fight, teen rebellion, how to jump-start infant language skills and more. The book is full of so much terrific information that I believe every person who is around children should read it. I believe this so much that I am making the autographed paperback copy I received at this lecture my first ever giveaway at The Twin Coach. If you’d like a chance to win it, leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts about about this post. Don’t forget to leave a way for me to contact you! And to make it more interesting, those of you who are subscribers (or who subscribe once you read this post) will have an extra shot at winning. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce who’s won Wednesday, March 9th on my Facebook page. I really look forward to hearing what everyone has to say