A+ for Effort!
We assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability (along with confidence in that ability) is a recipe for success. Research findings suggest, however, that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves us vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to see or work on our shortcomings.
When we tell our children they’re smart, we think we’re helping to boost their self-confidence. We all know the importance of self-confidence for doing well not just academically but in life. I grew up with a low-esteem which meant I found challenges to be sources of major anxiety and frustration. Research suggests that those who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. I was paralysed with self-critical thoughts such as "I'm no good" or "I can't do anything right” and became passive, withdrawn and even depressed. Faced with any new challenge, my immediate response was "I can't."
And it wasn’t because I didn’t get enough praise but perhaps because of it. When my parents, teachers or others would praise me for being “smart”, I quickly got the message that I’m only smart when I get the grade, accomplish the goal or produce the ideal result — and that was a lot of pressure to live up to. I worried more about keeping up the appearance of being "smart" rather than trying to learn new skills. Now studies show that when we tell kids they’re smart after they’ve completed a puzzle, they’re less likely to attempt a more difficult puzzle after. That’s because kids are worried that if they don’t do well, they will no longer be regarded as “smart.”
Now that I have children of my own, I avoid generic, sweeping comments and instead:
*I tell them that I appreciate their effort – “Wow, you really tried hard on that!” By focusing on the effort, rather than the result, I’m letting my children know what really counts.
*I tell them that intelligence is something to be developed through hard work. This way, my children can take increasingly greater risks in order to learn. Thus, when they make mistakes, they can work hard to learn from them.
*I tell them that we never stop learning. We all have the ability to learn and grow and this process never ends, regardless of who we are, how “smart” we are, how old we are.
*I tell them the importance of perseverance. I think we falsely over-value intelligence as a predictor of life success. We can all tell stories of "book smart" people we know who struggled to take risks and walked away when a project turned difficult. On the flip side, we have also seen the power and success of perseverance, a strong work ethic and persistent effort.
*I tell them about the achievements of others, including so-called geniuses whose gifts are typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that came automatically. Mozart, Edison, Curie and Darwin were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort. Similarly, hard work and discipline in school, at work and in life contribute more to achievement than IQ does.
*I tell them that challenges and mistakes are opportunities for improvement. When they encounter difficulty, I want them to continue to strive, learn and hone their skills. Instead of dwelling on their failures, I want them to think of mistakes as problems to be solved, and transform insecurities into motivation, strength and wisdom.
*I tell them it’s okay to admit errors and confront and remedy deficiencies in school, at work and in relationships. When we are unwilling to admit mistakes, we pass up the opportunity to correct them. There are plenty of “smart” people in the world who ignore constructive criticism and advice but we all need feedback to improve.
*I tell them that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections. Thus, my kids can begin to see themselves as agents of their own brain development.
Sirsa Qursha, Child Development and Parenting Specialist and consultant to Family Flavours magazine, recommends praise for the specific process a child uses to accomplish something. This fosters motivation and confidence by focusing children on the actions that lead to success. we can commend effort, strategies, focus, persistence in the face of difficulty and willingness to take on challenges. The following are examples:
*You did a good job drawing. I like the detail you added to the people's faces
*I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that maths problem until you finally got it
*That was a hard assignment, but you stuck with it until you got it done. That's great!