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Friday, May 09, 2008

The importance of being beautiful or smart.. or both

Or more distinctly the importance of being told you are.

As I was driving home from work yesterday I looked down at my cell phone and saw one of my favorite pictures of my niece. Her photos are the wallpaper on my cell phone. She is an absolutely gorgeous little girl. At least I (and anyone with eyes) think so.

Looking at her picture the thought came to mind... she is just so beautiful, and I remembered something I'd heard or read a while back that I'd like to discuss with you today.

I don't remember if it was an article I read or an interview with some so-called specialist in child psychology on a talk show, but the topic was whether praising a child on a regular basis is more harmful than good.

Aha! I found it.. well at least the source of the article or interview I'm talking about. Some of what you'll read below is from an
article I just found on Blogher.

There is a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Developmental Psychologist and Stanford University Professor
Carol Dweck.

Her research indicates that too much praise can make your child fear failure or not work hard enough, and she suggests it's better to praise effort such as "hard work" or "strategy" and not genetic attributes like intelligence.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he's smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn't just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

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."

I have to admit I'm much like Thomas. From as young as kindergarten I've always been told how smart I was. I started reading at 3yrs of age and participated in "gifted" programs from elementary school up through junior high. When I was in 6th or 7th grade I made my very first B on my report card. I was devastated. I came home after school, cleaned the house from top to bottom and left a note on the kitchen table telling my parents that I was grounded. My mom was just telling someone that story last weekend.

I've always been a bit of a perfectionist. If I made 2nd chair in band tryouts instead of first I'd be angry, even though I was in 9th grade and it was a senior with three more years experience who'd beat me. Thinking back I realize that I, like Thomas, also had and still have a natural inclination to only attempt things I know I will excel at. If I know I can't do something great, I don't do it at all.

I don't work well in groups because I'm always frustrated when it takes someone longer to do or learn something than it would me and I always feel like I'll need to come behind someone and redo something so it's "right".

A therapist told me once that I'm so OCD about things partly because my childhood was a bit out of control. Not me, but the life around me, and being in control of everything I can control is my way of creating a feeling of stability. She also said it's partly because I've always been told how smart I am, and as a result I've created unreasonable expectations for myself because others always expected so much of me.

I remember thinking when I was a teenager that I wished I was just "normal". Like every other kid who just did average and their parents were happy about it. I thought just because I was "smart" I had to take all honors classes in high school, and by my Senior year I had taken just about every course my high school had to offer. My 12th grade schedule consisted of study hall, creative writing, short stories, English and I think I filled up class hour by being an office worker. I'd taken almost everything else there was to take.

By my senior year I was also so burned out that I half-assed everything I did and only passed by the skin of my teeth. I didn't do a term paper, which was a third of my grade and I had to get every single question on the final English exam right to graduate. It had 100 questions and not just multiple choice. We're talking fill in the blank, discussion questions, true or false.. the entire range of possible question types. So I went from a straight A student, to an A/B student to barely passing. All because I was "smart" and was expected to excel. I did too much, too soon and burned myself out.

I can't even begin to imagine how true genius children manage to live normal lives. I mean I'm only "above average" according to standardized tests and whatever other box test society and the education system has devised to measure us by. My IQ, depending on which test I take is anywhere from 142 to I think 150, which falls in the "highly gifted" area. It's a number, what does it really mean.. as far as I'm concerned it doesn't mean anything, except that I'll never as long as I live be able to just do enough to get by and have it be OK. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be tiring.

My mom said when I was about 10 that I decided that I was going to be stupid. I don't remember this or how I decided not to be smart anymore, but she said she was so aggravated with me. I guess my teacher called her and told her I was playing dumb in class or something. So apparently even then I was realizing what a blessing and a curse it was to be gifted.

I've never really thought personally that I was all that "smart". I do however have a really really good memory, so I recall things easily. Who knows.

Anyway, sorry about that lengthy diatribe on how great it is to be smart. ~insert sarcasm here~

The point of this discussion was about if it's helpful or harmful to repeatedly praise your child.

For me and apparently Thomas up there, constantly being told we were smart became somewhat of a hindrance. We became so used to excelling at things that we refused to even trying many things because we might not do so great.

I started out by talking about how beautiful my niece Marley is, and how everyone always tells her that she's pretty, or cute, or beautiful.

I was told the same thing and never really thought I was pretty. OK.. ya, but not that pretty. Constantly hearing how beautiful people thought I was seemed to have the opposite effect of hearing how smart I was.
I have, however encountered people who so totally and completely believed every person who ever said they were attractive that looking good became their sole goal in life and the "skill" they used to get through it.

So maybe it varies on the child. Will Marley grow up thinking she's all that and a bag of chips, or will she be burdened by being beautiful.. and smart, which she is.. .very.

I do agree with something the author said though. I think it is important that we praise children for the effort as much if not more than the result. I often tell Marley "Good Job!" for doing something well. All of her family does. It encourages her and she gets motivated to do more. She likes to help her mommy and daddy around the house, and she's learned that she needs help too.

Ok she's learned that if she doesn't want to do something (like pick up her room) she can say "Help me" and someone will come do most of the work while she picks up a toy here and there.. I told you she was smart.

What do you think? I'd really like some feedback on this topic. Should we praise our children, tell them they're beautiful or handsome, smart and talented, or should we only give encouragement for a job well done, or should we do neither? Were you a child who was constantly praised for your looks or intelligence.. or were you a child who wished you'd been given more positive feedback??

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