Friday, May 21, 2010

The Faulty Science of Self-Esteem

All praise is not equal, but some praise is more equal than other praise.

This is the conclusion of recent research on the effect of praise on students in New York schools. The article How Not to Talk to Your Kids (New York Magazine, Feb.11, 2007) deconstructs the faulty science of self-esteem and offers practical, evidence-based suggestions for how parents can encourage and support their kids without inadvertently sabotaging their confidence or causing them to become risk-averse.  Parenting Science also deals with the topic of how to praise your kids. This unique website provides evidence-based parenting and child development information--complete with citations from scientific and medical literature.

"Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting," suggested Po Bronson in the New York Magazine article.  "We put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments."  Or we praise more in order to ease our own separation anxiety over relinquishing their care for all or part of the day.

The guy who exponentially kick-started the whole "praise your kids until they think they're one notch below Jesus" philosophy of parenting--which I have, until recently, uncritically embraced--was Nathaniel Branden with his seminal work, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969).  This is what started the whole ridiculousness of giving a trophy to every child who signs up for soccer, among other ill-advised self-esteem-building maneuvers.

So we all started hemorrhaging praise-talk to our kids:  "Oh, you drew such a pretty picture!" and "Oh! you're so smart!" and "My! what a huge booger you pulled out of your nose!"--and now, apparently, we've gone and done it.  We've screwed them up in new and improved ways:  for example, the article suggests that some students turn to cheating because they haven't developed a strategy for handling failure.  I don't necessarily buy this argument, though:  cheating has been around way longer than the psychology of self-esteem.

I do buy, however, the argument that excessive and inappropriate praise could rewire a child's brain to become risk-averse, and to give up rather than trying harder.  The article suggests that students "who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort."  One study demonstrated that those who were taught that the brain is a muscle showed improved study habits and math grades.  Persistence, it turns out, is "more than a conscious act of will; it's also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain." The brain can be taught, or rewired, through intermittent reinforcement, to choose persistence.

The culture of praise-parenting persists in spite of the research, one researcher said, because "When [parents] praise their kids, it's not that far from praising themselves." Hmmm. And ouch. I feel the sting of truth in that statement.

So what's a parent to do?  Stop praising and start ridiculing?  Heh.  No, silly.  Praise is still good--but it should meet certain criteria in order to avoid the Praise Pitfalls.  Praise should

  • be specific
  • be sincere
  • be about things the child can control--like effort rather than ability.  "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control [the researcher] explains. "They come to see themselves as in control of their success"
  • be less about accomplishments that come easily to them, and more about perseverance and hard work
  • not involve a comparison with other kids.

Now I have to go undo all the damage I've done by telling my kids that they are smart enough to cure cancer, athletic enough to win MVP in the big leagues, and creative enough to invent the Next Big Technology Thing.

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