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Zen Mama Wannabe » Blog Archive » Being Smart vs Working Hard
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Being Smart vs Working Hard


We just figured out Blue’s Clues

We just figured out Blue’s Clues

We just figured out Blue’s Clues

Because we’re really smart!

The dad ran over and shut off the TV when he heard the popular jingle and gave his 3-year old daughter HIS version of the song:

We just figured out Blue’s Clues  —  Because we worked so hard!

“No no, Daddy,” his daughter exclaimed reproachfully.  “That isn’t how it goes!”

Well, it should be, as far as he’s concerned.  Of course, when he recounted the story to us, an auditorium packed full of parents, we all chucked – but his view has stuck with me ever since.

You see, popular wisdom of late has been that you tell kids they are smart.  A Columbia University survey says over 85% of parents feel that way.  After all, we want to build them up, not tear them down.  But this dad’s contention, as well as many other experts in the field, is we might be hurting more than we’re helping.  That telling kids how smart they are actually lowers their self-esteem and increases their struggles down the road.

If kids think they did it (i.e. got it right) by being smart, then what do they do when they don’t know something?  Does that mean then that they aren’t really that smart?  (Research shows that is exactly the connection they make).  However, if a child is praised for working hard, when he doesn’t know something he just thinks he needs to work harder.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that 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 recipes for responding to a failure.”

from NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Chapter One: The Inverse Power of Praise

Another point muddling this all up is that for quite some time we have been advised to tell our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters in particular that they are smart (and not the dreaded “P” word).  We’ve been told to empower our girls by stressing intelligence, not looks.  Makes sense of course.   This Zen Mama Wannabe confesses to even feeling it necessary to cover ALL the bases by telling my daughter that she was not only pretty, but so smart too!  (Is that two stones to be cast upon me?).

But now we’re being advised NOT to say smart.  We are to praise boys and girls for their effort, for working hard.  For a particular action they took – something specific.  Makes sense and all, actually sounds a bit basic, doesn’t it?  But just TRY it – I’m warning you, it’s not as easy to do as it would seem.

For as bestselling author Po Bronson points out in NutureShock, it often turns out that it is the parents that are the real praise junkies.  We’re so busy putting “gee, you’re special” notes in their lunchboxes, and stickers on their star charts (Yea! Susie did her homework!) that it becomes hard for us to notice that building them up this way means more to us than it does to them.  After all, we love them so much, these special little beings, and we need to make sure they know that.  Right?

In our household, intelligence is highly valued.  We noticed and comment when our kids make a connection or inference that seems wise beyond their years.  Some families value goals scored, belts earned, points won; in our house, we really care about what you think, why you think it, and how you got to that outcome.  So yeah, the words, “How smart of you!” get tossed around here a lot.  (Hmmm).

What I am learning is that our challenge is to still convey those messages, but in a specific manner, and one that emphasizes working hard rather than just being smart.  Not so easy to do, but necessary to try.  Definitely something to keep in mind the next time you feel tempted to shower the kids in your life with praise.   Maybe it is time for all of us to discover whom the praise junkies around here really are.

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2 Responses to “Being Smart vs Working Hard”

  1. LarkLady Says:
    November 25th, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Well, I’ve resented for some time feeling coerced into finding something to praise my kids about at times… like I was doing them grievous harm by not providing a minimum daily amount of praise! But now the rules are shifting again, and I think that instead of trying to follow new guidelines, I’m going to simply try to tell it like it is. Did Older Daughter do something above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty helpful? I’m going to thank her for it! Did Younger Daughter take extra time and attention getting ready this morning and come out looking drop-dead gorgeous? I’m going to tell her so! Did one of them forget to do a daily chore that she shouldn’t have to be reminded about? I’m going to say that too!

    Most employers out in The Real World don’t lavishly hand out praise; doing so to our kids at home doesn’t prepare them for realities ahead. On the other hand, when extra effort is made, it’s nice to have that acknowledged… at home, at school, or in the workplace.

    Maybe the key is that it should be EXTRA effort or EXTRA achievement that gets the comments. And… here’s another wild and crazy thought! — maybe it’s not inappropriate for Mom and Dad to praise our children more often than the rest of the world does.

  2. Jerry Svartel Says:
    March 28th, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Do you have a “top posters” page to reward your best blog comments?

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