Think Your Kid’s Smart? Don’t Tell Him!

Is there anyone who doesn’t want her child to see himself as smart and capable? If so, I’d love to meet you. But I doubt you’re out there because for years we’ve all been told that strong self-esteem is the key to our ability to create a happy, successful life. Period.

Where did this idea come from? Is it a fact or just wishful thinking? And if it’s true that self-esteem is crucial to happiness, how does it develop? What creates it?

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take a long look at the subject and how it relates to praise in their book Nurtureshock and lay it out pretty well: The idea came to life back in 1969 when Nathaniel Brandon wrote a book called The Psychology of Self-Esteem. He proposed that self-esteem was a critical component of a healthy personality and that in order for it to grow one needed to have self-worth and this came from engaging in challenges that resulted in successes. So in a nutshell his idea was:

a) a successful life depends on a healthy personality

b) a healthy personality requires high self-esteem

c) self-esteem grows when a person has feelings of self-worth

d) those feelings of self-worth result from engaging in challenging activities that end up being successful

This all sounded pretty reasonable and the idea of self-esteem began to infiltrate our thinking and affect our outlook on what makes us tick. Then in 1984, California created a Self-Esteem Task Force to investigate whether healthy self-esteem was related to the development of personal responsibility and social problems (like alcoholism, crime, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse). And that’s when things really began to take off.

The Task Force defined self-esteem as “Appreciating my own worth and importance, and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others.” It’s a great definition but one that has been misinterpreted and misapplied in real life with some very negative results.

The problems began when people decided that in order to build self-esteem, they must protect children from ever seeing themselves as failures. And they forgot about the “having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others” part, too. It was a one-two punch definition that got watered down to an it’s-all-about-me definition instead.

Before long, schools were encouraged to stop giving out ribbons and awards for achievement or outstanding effort — unless there was one for everybody. No more blue ribbons for the winner of the spelling bee or Best Student unless you also had one for Most Enthusiastic, Funniest, and Best at Tying His Shoes, too.

Since criticism was thought to damage self-esteem, teachers were told to heap on the praise and tell each child how smart he was even if he was clearly performing below his abilities. The thinking was that then he would feel good about himself and end up with high self-esteem.

Coaches got the same story, and parents demanded that they give all the little soccer players the same end-of-season trophy, regardless of whether they had missed most of the games or made most of the goals. “You’re all GREAT and super talented, and bound for the pros!” resonated from the sidelines.

And at home mommies and daddies laid it on even thicker with comments like “You’re just the smartest kid I’ve ever met” and “I’ve never seen such a natural at baseball!”

The kids weren’t fooled for long, though. They’re not stupid. Every one of them knew who the smartest students and star athletes were. But the praise was certainly enjoyed. Who doesn’t like to hear about how smart, talented, and wonderful they are?

It all seemed silly to me. After all, nobody’s good at everything and nobody gets to win all the time. Each child is unique and has her own set of interesting and wonderful talents and attributes. Given proper support and encouragement each one will peak at his own time. Some find their niche early in life and others, even geniuses like Einstein or Grandma Moses, don’t hit their stride until they’re well into adulthood.

But despite all the “You’re the man” type of accolades filling homes and schools everywhere, a funny thing started to happen. As these children grew, many began to believe that being “smart” or “the best” was the be-all and end-all in life and connected to how their parents felt about them. If you weren’t a winner, you were a loser.  And winning became the goal, even if it meant cheating or hurting someone else.

So much for the part of the definition about “having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others.” Have you been to a middle school or high school sporting event lately? Have you seen the prima donna athletes who kick over trash cans when they don’t win the game or hear the self-absorbed parents in  the stands scream hateful comments at the kid who drops the ball or misses the goal?

What’s up with that? Self-esteem was supposed to be tied to happiness and success, so why all the negativity?

Fast forward then from 1969 to 2011. Bronson and Merryman point out that thanks to the developing field of neuroscience, we now have a lot of research to suggest that how we have gone about fostering self-esteem is all wrong.

They go so far as to say that if you tell a child he’s special you run the risk of ruining him and that it is a neurobiological fact. “What?” you might gasp. “Impossible!” But yep, it’s absolutely true. Here’s how it works:

Say little Suzie comes home with an “A” on her test. You say, “Wow, Suzie, look at that! I’m so proud of you. You’re really smart!” Suzie will equate the facts that she got an “A” and that you are praising her with having been born smart — not with all the effort she put into studying. She may also assume that being smart guarantees good grades and that you really like them.

It gets tricky once the subject matter gets more challenging. Because she has been told she’s smart, it only follows that she should be able to easily understand her schoolwork. When she doesn’t and then gets a bad grade she may think, “No, I’m not smart. They made a mistake. I can’t do it.”

She has not learned that results come from a lot of effort and that qualities like perseverance and going the extra mile are what you admire her for. In her head, it’s all about the “A”. Can you see the dilemma for her? She wants you to love her and be proud of her. She wants to hear your praise. But if the praise is about being smart instead of her hard work, she’s in a tough spot.

So instead of getting deliriously excited about each and every win, focus on helping them make the connection between effort and outcome. Even when they don’t do well but have tried their best, take notice and reinforce their work. And next time they come home with a less than perfect score after giving it their all, try this:

“This was a tough subject for you. But you worked really hard, put in the time and gave it your best shot. I’m so proud of that. You are developing great qualities that are going to take you really far in life.” The take away message this time will be: “You go girl, you’re learning how to create success for yourself”.

And if they do rock the test and get an “A”, certainly congratulate them but focus on how great it must feel to see their efforts pay off.

If he didn’t work hard and got a lousy grade, remind him that he has a lot of control over how well he does and that if he wants a good grade in the future, he has to put in the time. Every child can do this. Every child can learn to concentrate, control himself, stay with a job until it’s finished and learn to take pride in his or her work. Yes, it will take time and effort on their part and you will be needed to set the bar and hold them accountable.

The message we want to leave them with is that it’s their effort that we are proud of, not necessarily the outcome. And if we can do this, while not forgetting that a big portion of self esteem also comes from “having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others,” they will be well on their way to creating happy, successful lives.