Why Smart Kids Don’t Try

“For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.”  (Po Bronson- NY Times)

Continued from last week’s blog

Joey

Joey, our six year old grandson refuses to try each time he is asked to play a game he is unfamiliar with or practice a skill he has not mastered.  At the beginning of kindergarten this year, he was assessed as exceptional in his math concepts while average in his reading skills.  By February, his reading skills had improved impressively but his math skills had not grown.

I am reminded of an academically gifted female high school student who is terrified to speak in class.  She often achieves the highest grade in each course and consistently over-works in order to exceed course expectations.  Her standardized test scores place her among the very elite, yet in the classroom setting she under performs in graded oral discussions.

At the same time, across the room an equally  gifted classmate maintains a nonchalant attitude about his school work and participation.  He manages to achieve good grades, seemingly without effort, but he clearly is not working up to his potential.

What do these three students have in common?

They are all involved in “image maintenance”:  the art of looking smart by not taking risks that could result in mistakes.  Joey has refused to engage in the math activities at school, which are often done at public calendar time, because of the chance that his performance will not be considered advanced. (Reading is safe because he had no image to hold up)   Speaking in class, is too risky for the young woman whose identity is one of being exceptionally bright; what if she were to say something that would not support this image?  The young man mistakenly assumes that trying hard would be proof to others that his natural abilities do not cut it-  that effort negates the image that he is naturally talented. He underestimates the importance of effort.

For most parents, constant praise is added insurance that their children will not sell their talents short, but a growing body of research strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” may actually be causing under-performance.

The reality is that bright kids cop out of doing difficult tasks more readily than any other group.

What can we do to change this?

First, our words of affirmation need to emphasize effort which provides kids a controllable variable for success. On the other hand, emphasizing intelligence provides them with a deficient formula for responding to a failure.

In addition our praise needs to be specific.

By the time a child reaches seven years of age, general praise (you are so smart, you are naturally talented, etc) is not trusted as sincere.  Rather it is perceived as “there is something wrong with me so my mom/dad/teacher has to flatter me.”  Older kids tends to scrutinize flattery for hidden agendas such as  “maybe they think I am at the end of my natural ability.”  Specific praise however that draws attention to postiive behavior and habits- things a student has control over – does encourage growth and success. (more on this next week) Interestingly, correction and even criticsim by smart students is often seen as belief in their ability to do better- that potential exists to actually improve.

What kids really need to reach their potential is persistence.  Persistence requires that they not be afraid to try new and challenging tasks.  Persistence grows out of effort which in turn fosters not only better skills, but intelligence.

At home, Joey has been ordered to practice the skills he had been refusing to practice at school:  counting by twos, fives and tens.  At first he stubbornly held out.  “I already know how to do that,” he stated emphatically.  After an extended battle of the wills, his parents won out.  Last night at dinner, he proudly displaced his newly formed skills.  He no longer had to pretend he knew how .  He actually could perform them.  His eyes shown with confidence over his newly acquired skills, which were realized as a result of effort and determination.

I could tell it felt genuinely good to him and I am confident that his entire demeanor will be different during calendar time for the remainder of the year.

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3 Comments

  1. This is so helpful! We measure the wrong things; YET, I WISH EFFORT WAS AS EASY TO MEASURE AS TEST RESULTS.

    There’s a right balance of proper pressure that I need to discover as I’m raising out kids; wrong pressure ought be avoided, yet no pressure is not healthy either.

    Your clear distinction between GENERAL praise versus SPECIFIC praise is such a great principal! I think every pastor and business leader needs to grasp this as well.

    Reply
  2. This really makes me think about how I praise my daughter. It’s hard to break old habits, but I’m determined to start focusing on praising her effort and emphasizing it more than anything else.

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  3. The first couple of paragraphs really struck a cord with me! My 10 yr old daughter leaves her completed homework in her bag and forgets to turn assignments in. Because of this she is getting Bs &Cs on her mid-term grades. When she turns in her work she gets As every time. It’s so incredibly frustrating and I don’t know how to help her.

    Reply

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