In 2007, New York Magazine published an article “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” The synopsis of which is a fairly simple rule for all parents to follow: stop calling your children smart. The response? Overwhelming as it was controversial, as groves of behavior analysts, teachers, and naturally a few soccer moms, weighed their opinions and their data against each other. While some critics maintained a staunch belief that inflating the egos of impressionable minds slowly churned a generation of praise junkies, others professed that deeming society’s children “smart” was the needed push to encourage children to take higher level classes, and strive for greater opportunities.
The article goes on to explain how parents are actually hindering their children through praising them. When Little Libby colors inside the lines – she’s smart; when she continues to learn how to tie her shoes- she’s smart; when she makes a satisfactory mark for remembering the national anthem- she’s smart. The article argues that this trend of using an intelligence-based compliment becomes ingrained in Little Libby’s head. Naturally, after several times of performing tasks standard for her developmental level accompanied by the familiar “You’re so smart Libby!” Libby, when asked, would say that she considers herself, in fact, to be above average intelligence.
So what’s the harm in that? More than we realize. By constantly labeling our children as smart, AIG, accelerated of whatever the hell we want to call them now, we’ve rendered a generation of students who are afraid of challenges, and more often than not, unable to find value in the process of working through those challenges. Students believe that since they are “smart” every task should come easy. Should a task prove more challenging, the student becomes paralyzed- essentially shutting down. As a teacher I’ve seen this in the form of tear-filled meltdown, fabricated stories revealed through defensive parent emails, and a deluge of complaining on the most reliable sources on the internet- Facebook and Twitter. Parents believe their children are smart, and I have no doubts their children are intelligent individuals, but with Ready or Not declaring 57% of college freshman underprepared for college, I beg parents to understand that A’s on a transcript do not equal Einstein’s prodigy.
Why do student’s make straight A’s? Good question. Complacency? A desire to maintain a status quo? Pressure to produce graduation rate results? The desire to go one semester without having to battle a helicopter mom or dad? Who knows. Regardless the issue remains that until we all begin to reward the process of learning instead of practicing social stigmatization, we’re doomed.
I’ve been fortunate in that while teaching high school, my focus was primarily centered around preparing honors and advanced placement students for college. I never wanted to be the movie Freedom Writers, I just wanted my students to be the 43%. After all, success in college certainly means success in life- right?
It was this past weekend, while strolling aimlessly around Target, that I happened to run into a former student. The student wasn’t “my own” per say, but over the course of her senior year I had listened to her problems with her boyfriend, her complaints over too much homework in an AP class, and her hopes for a better, brighter, wealthier future. The student had recently graduated -with honors and from a prestigious university – and was currently eyeing a pair of leopard print flats, enjoying the financial freedom that only that first “real” job can bring. When asked about her current place of employment, the girl promptly replied, “It is so hard. I feel like nobody notices how good I am and it’s like, nobody tells me what to do so I never know what I’m doing.” I was waiting for a pause in the conversation to explain that it gets easier, tell her to stick it out and relate the other pleasantries that recent grads often receive, but I was floored when she continued on to say, “My mom thinks I should quit because I’m too smart for this job.” Sigh.
Again, I was faced with the problem of praise. Instead of encouraging the young woman create an identify for herself within an up and coming company, her mom unknowingly is asking her to sacrifice a chance for personal and professional development for something easy – something that validates her intelligence, something that instantly rewards her, without having to put in too much effort. If you are a fan of complacency it sounds wonderful. However, few jobs (if any) accept complacency or mediocracy. In fact, the majority of today’s jobs demand critical thinkers that are able to work without having guided directions; simply being “smart” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Beyond high school and beyond college, the effects of years of praising intelligence are now entering the workforce- only employers are oblivious to the praising trend. Instead, recent graduates are feeling under appreciated, overworked, overwhelmed and scared. The challenge of the “real world,” where parents have no actual pull and grades on a college degree are quickly glanced over, proves to be an unfamiliar struggle for those newly hired. Moreover, few employers reward employees for doing what they’re hired to do. For those accustomed to constant recognition, the lack of positive feedback can leave them reeling in insecurity. After all, for years they were “the smart kids” and now, they’re simply the cubicle next to the water cooler.
So what do we do to fix this? While I do agree that students should be positively reinforced, I also believe that the focus needs to shift from the student (Johnny is so smart) to the student’s process (Johnny really had a hard time with this word problem, but he solved it be remembering an equation we learned last week). This shift to process-centered-praise also means that all students earn a chance to have their individual thought process appreciated. In rewarding the student’s process as opposed to the individual student, the student learns to not fear and openly approach challenges. After all, life is a challenge, and nothing comes easy.