Brain Pickings

Presence, Not Praise: How To Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Achievement

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Why instilling admiration for hard work rather than raw talent is the key to fostering a well-adjusted mind.

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” He recounts:

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.

Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

The Examined Life goes on to explore such enduring facets of the meaning of existence as our inextinguishable urge to change ourselves, the gift of ignorance, and the challenges of intimacy, deconstructing the wall in philosopher Simone Weil’s famous prison parable to reveal the many dimensions in which our desire “to understand and be understood” manifests.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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