A few weeks ago, Husband directed me towards a really interesting article in New York Magazine about how we speak to our children. The basic premise of the piece, which was actually published back in 2007, is that when we constantly tell our kids how ‘clever’ they are (especially if they actually are of above average intelligence), they’re less likey to try something if they think they’ll fail. The main subject of the piece, Thomas, actually shunned activities unless he thought he’d excel at them because he was so used to the cycle of praise and achievement:
But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
It really got me thinking about how I speak to Sausage and the importance that I place on intelligence and academic achievement. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about how I felt, as a child, that too much pressure was placed upon my using my intelligence, rather than being encouraged to pursue things about which I was passionate, and despite making an enormous effort to nurture Sausage with whatever it is that makes her happy, I know for a fact that I’m guilty of constantly telling her how clever she is.
Sausage definitely needs a little encouragement to push herself outside of her comfort zone, especially when it comes to physical endeavours, and I can’t help but wonder if we should have placed more emphasis on “what a fantastic effort you’ve made!” instead of “what a clever girl you are!” and therefore created a cycle of reward for TRYING rather than BEING.
Further to the theme of the article about ‘clever’ kids refusing to try anything which might result in failure, I think it’s also possible to create a culture of not needing to try – I know for a fact that if I’d knuckled down before my exams, I could have been an A student across most subjects, but I coasted and made very little effort, and ended up with mostly B’s. I was a clever kid, by no means ‘top 1% of the top 1%’ like the boy in the article, but a lot of what was written in the piece really rang true for me. If I thought I’d be ‘rubbish’ at something, I never even tried, but I also put in minimal effort at a lot of things because plenty of stuff came very naturally to me, too.
I also wonder if, as parents and society, we don’t teach our kids well enough how to cope with failure and disappointment. Perhaps if we were to teach them that failure is a natural part of trying and needn’t be viewed as a negative all the time, simply part of a learning experience, then they may be more willing to put themselves out there. I know that if I’d, as a child, been told “failure doesn’t matter, it’s the effort that counts”, I’d have been a lot more willing to attempt things that I wasn’t naturally good at.
What do you think, dear readers? Are we letting our kids down by being TOO encouraging, rather than letting them know that failure is okay? Or do you think that by allowing kids to fail, they’ll make LESS effort overall? I’d love to know your thoughts on this.