The Secret to Parenting Smart Children (Part 1)

    Tip: Do not tell your children that they are smart. Research over three decades has told us that focusing on effort, not on capabilities or intelligence, is the key to success in school and life. Article

    Translation in Scientific American
    As a brilliant student, Jonathan went to elementary school without any problems. He easily coped with the tasks and got five for five. Jonathan wondered why some of his classmates had to try a lot more, and his parents told him that he had a special gift. In seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework and prepare for tests. Because of this, his grades were rapidly deteriorating. His parents tried to maintain his faith in himself, convincing him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (in fact, he is a collective image drawn from several children). He went on to argue that schoolwork is boring and meaningless.

    Our society worships talent, and many imply that excellence in intelligence and ability — along with confidence in excellence — is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than thirty years of research by scientists lead to the conclusion that excessive attention to intelligence or talent develops in people a fear of failure, a fear of complex tasks and an unwillingness to get rid of their shortcomings.

    All this leads to the appearance of children such as Jonathan, who easily cope with the elementary grades with the dangerous idea that unstressed academic successes are the consequences of their special mind or gift. Such children secretly believe that intelligence is innate and permanent, and therefore making efforts to learn seems to be much less important than being (or seeming to be) smart. And this leads to a loss of self-confidence and motivation, when work ceases to be simple for them.

    Praising the innate abilities of children, as Jonathan's parents did, strengthens their faith in the constancy of intelligence. This can lead to the fact that in his personal life and in work, a person will not use his potential. On the other hand, our studies show that when people are taught to constantly grow above themselves, focusing on efforts, rather than intelligence or talent, this helps them achieve more in school and in life.

    Good chance to lose
    I first began to explore the foundations of human motivation, and how people continue to try after they fail as a psychology student at Yale University in the 60s. Animal experiments conducted by psychologists Martin Seligman, Stephen Mayer, and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania showed that after constant failures, most animals believe that the situation is hopeless and out of their control. Scientists have observed that after such a conclusion, the animal often remains inactive even when it can affect events - a condition they called helplessness.

    People can learn helplessness, but not everyone reacts to failure in this way. I wondered: “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, while others, less experienced and knowledgeable, continue to try and learn?” One of the answers, as I soon found out, is that people see the reasons for their failures differently.

    In particular, if we see the reason for low productivity as a lack of opportunities, this weakens motivation more than the accusation of insufficient effort. In 1972, when I convinced a group of elementary and middle school students who showed helpless behavior at school that a lack of effort, not opportunity, led to errors in mathematical problems, the children learned to continue to try when the tasks became more difficult. They solved many problems, despite their complexity. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for successfully solving simple problems could not solve complex mathematical problems better. These experiments were the first signal that attention to effort could eliminate helplessness and lead to success.

    Subsequent studies have shown that the most stubborn students are not lost in thought about their failures, but think of mistakes as problems that need to be addressed. In the University of Illinois in the 70s, together with my student Carol Diener, we asked 60 fifth-graders to express their thoughts aloud when solving very complex pattern recognition problems. Some students reacted to mistakes by embarking on a defensive position, denouncing their skills with comments like “I never knew how to memorize well,” and their strategies for solving problems lost their strength.

    Others at the same time focused on correcting mistakes and honing skills. The student advised himself: "I need to slow down and try to figure it out." Two schoolchildren were especially inspiring. One at the time of difficulty rose in a chair, rubbed his palms, licked his lips and said, “I love complexity!” Another at such moments looked at the experimenter and approvingly declared “I hoped it would be instructive!”. As expected, students with such a tendency performed better than their comrades.

    Two views on intelligence
    A few years later, I developed a more comprehensive theory about the differences between the two main classes of students - helpless versus performance-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures in different ways, but also believe in different “theories” of intelligence. Helpless people believe that intelligence is a constant property of a person: you have a certain amount of intelligence, and that’s it. I call it the “constancy setting”. Mistakes destroy the self-confidence of such people because they attribute errors to lack of opportunities that they cannot make up for. They avoid complexity because then they make more mistakes and look less smart. Like Jonathan, these children avoid efforts because of the belief that having to work means that they are stupid.

    Children with a focus on improvement, on the contrary, think that intelligence is malleable and can be improved by learning and hard work. They primarily want to learn. After all, if you believe you can improve your intelligence, you want to do just that. Since errors arise due to lack of effort rather than ability, they can be corrected with great effort. Difficulties are energized, not intimidated: they become learning opportunities. We predicted that students with a “focus on excellence” achieve great academic success and are likely to overtake others.

    We tested these assumptions in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackuel from the University of Columbia and Cali Tresnievsky from Stanford, together with me, watched 373 students over the course of 2 years during the transition from elementary school to secondary, when tasks become more difficult and grades are harder to determine the impact of their attitudes on math grades. At the beginning of the seventh grade, we determined the students ’attitudes, checking their agreement with statements like“ Your intellect is a trait that you cannot change. ” Then we determined their beliefs about other aspects of the educational process and began to observe what was happening with their assessments.

    As we predicted, students with a focus on excellence felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they respected hard work, believing that great efforts in some direction lead to improved skills in this area. They understood that even geniuses had to work hard to achieve much. Faced with an obstacle in the form of a poor grade for the test, such students said they would study more diligently or try another way of studying the material.

    Pupils with a tendency to constancy, however, tried to look smart and did not make much effort to study. They had a negative attitude towards the application of efforts, because they believed that hard work was a sign of weak abilities. They thought that a person with talent or intellect does not need to work hard to achieve much. Relating the poor assessment to their abilities, these students said that they would study less in the future, try to avoid this subject in the future and try to write off on future tests.

    Such differences in worldviews greatly influenced the results of the work. At the beginning of secondary school, the results of tests in mathematics in students with a focus on improvement were comparable to students' grades with a focus on constancy. But with the complexity of the tasks, the installation for improvement made it possible to achieve greater perseverance. As a result, the grades of such students became better than those of the rest by the end of the first semester - and the gap between the two groups was constantly widening over the course of two years.

    Together with the Colombian psychologist Heidi Grant, I found a similar relationship between attitudes and achievements in a 2003 study of 128 Colombian freshmen at a medical college — students in a general chemistry course. Although all students cared about their grades, more were achieved by those who considered training important and not by those who were more interested in showing their knowledge of chemistry. The emphasis on learning strategies, efforts and perseverance for these students has paid off.

    The second, last, part - the secrets of parenting children focused on self-improvement, follows!

    Also popular now: