Hey Kid, You’re Not That Special

There’s an article in the Washington Post that talks about an overwhelming amount of research and stories about how the positive self-esteem, hand-holding culture of educating children isn’t working. I highly suggest going to read the article yourself, but I want to take a look at some of what’s talked about in the article.

I think our parents or our grandparents have probably told us a few times of how easy kids have it nowadays or even how easy we had it (for those 40 or younger). They didn’t have teachers always there patting our backs, telling us we get an “A for effort” or didn’t give them the answers to fix the problem. We’ve probably heard they walked uphill both ways, in the snow, to school. And it made them tougher. As much as we’ve laughed that off – they may have been on the right path.

We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.” Dweck’s studies, embraced in Montgomery schools and elsewhere, have found that praising children for intelligence — “You’re so clever!” — also backfires. In study after study, children rewarded for being smart become more likely to shy away from hard assignments that might tarnish their star reputations.

There’s two main points here. First, building kids up with praise and telling them they’re great isn’t the answer. What they’re saying is you can’t just tell a kid they’re great, smart, clever and expect them to get past that problem, figure out a tricky social issue or win that game. Secondly, we may have rewarded some children for having the answers come more naturally to them instead of urging them to show us how they got their answer or pushing them to new, more-challenging problems.

Do it yourself, kid!

But children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long-term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

So instead of offering encouragement for getting the right answer, we should offer praise and/or rewards for those kids who push through a difficult task or problem or children who choose to take the more difficult task. And when you think about that, it makes a ton of sense. When you accomplish a difficult task at work or home, don’t you feel really good about it? And most of the time it gives you the confidence you can take on something like that again.

The second part of the above quote from the story is something that I think is far more of an American problem. I think we’re brought up that having a strong intellect is something we’re entitled to, not something we have to work for. Even if we’re talking about people who finish high school and go to college, I think many people think by simply being there, they are entitled to have a strong intellect. In reality, it could be elementary school, high school, trade school or college, but you have to actually learn and you actually have to work through problems.

“We’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves that we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to actually be good at things,” Rhee said.

So, I can see this with my daughter. Her cheerleading team won the first competition they were ever in and suffice it to say the entire team’s confidence is sky-high. Not to say that her cheerleading team isn’t good, but as a parent I have seen her get medal and trophies just for participating. I remember getting medals or trophies for participating. Does this make us give praise or rewards when our children aren’t actually good or improving? I worry that it can.

Cheerleading gives another perfect example of this. For the cheerleading team, there were two portions of the contest – a cheer and dance. The coach of my daughter’s team decided to forego the dance and instead focused on the cheer. Why this decision was made is still unclear, but in part, the girls were having trouble learning the dance at the beginning and I have a feeling the coaches scrapped it to focus on the cheer. Despite the team winning, I was disappointed the girls didn’t get to learn a dance. She’s in second grade. I would much rather her go through the struggles of learning a new routine and working on her coordination than on focusing on something her team can win.

Dweck said it is important to be clear with children about what proficient or gold-medal performance looks like so they know what to strive for. (Unhelpful: “You were robbed! Those judges must be blind!”)

The article talks about the fact that there are winners and losers in the real world. There are orders of finish. You either win the game or you don’t. You either score that business pitch or you don’t. These are facts of life. As parents, it’s easy for us to want to come to the protection of our kids. We may want to blame the refs for a bad call or say that the teacher didn’t approach a lesson the right way, instead of focusing on the things that our kids can do to be better next time. It’s really hard to do, but the evidence is showing it will make our kids better.

Here’s the rub though – how do we get people to buy into this as a society? These things take buy-in from parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, etc. And this doesn’t mean we have to be jerks to our kids. It means we have to let them fight their own battles. We need to show them the direction, but ultimately they’re going to have to figure it out for themselves. Remember the first time you rode your bike? Remember how glorious that feeling was. Your mom or dad may have given you the push, but you were the one that ultimately had to find balance and peddle. The same thing goes here, as parents we can give the push and we can start them on the path, show them examples and encourage them to stay the course, but we can’t do it for them. Sometimes they’re going to fail. But many times that’s where the biggest teaching moments come from.

My kid is great, and I’m sure yours is, too. We just need to let them figure out they’re great on their own – by letting them learn how much they have inside of them.

Until next time,



2 thoughts on “Hey Kid, You’re Not That Special

  1. Mason Foster says:

    I think you’re missing an important distinction between blind praise and encouragement.

    Yes, kids are too babied these days, but I don’t think the harsh ‘hands off’ parenting/coaching of the past was any better for kids’ performance or self esteem. The problem is that everything has to be black & white in people’s eyes; it’s either the way it was or the way it is now…an important question to ask is how did we get to where we are now?

    In your scenario, you seem to offer two options for dealing with kids in competitive/challenging circumstances: a) walk away and let them figure it out on their own or tell them they are the best and that they didn’t win because of some unfairness.

    There’s another option – how about being loving AND honest with your kid? Use a moment of failure/difficulty as a learning opportunity. Recognize and acknowledge their effort without lying to them and saying they were perfect. Talk to them (and listen) about what they think went well and went wrong. Talk to them (and listen) about what they might do next time. Talk to them about the experience again before their next attempt.

    The ability to move past and learn from failure is a critical life skill that applies to all aspects of life, be it sports, business, or what have you.

    The tough part of this option is that it’s not a cookie cutter answer (you’re the best! or quit crying, you’re not that special) and you actually need to be real with your kids and adjust your approach based on their attitude, level of expertise, mood, and physical/mental ability.

    Some people can’t seem to digest parenting advice unless it’s wrapped up in a neat black and white bow, but that’s not necessarily their fault…it goes back to my original thought – how did we get where we are now?

    Maybe a lot of us didn’t learn the nuances of coaching kids effectively through struggles from our own parents, who may have been old school proponents of the ‘walk away and let them figure it out’ group…which is how we ended up with the other end of the spectrum – blind praise for any effort.

    • kcklo63 says:

      Great points. And you’re absolutely right, it’s not cookie cuter. And I agree that it’s not just walking away and leaving kids to figure it out on their own. I think the article talks about that, too, in that there is still encouragement, but it’s in how they are being encouraged. And I do think some post analysis of a test, problem, game, etc. is a really good activity to really bring up those teaching moments from what they just did – be it a success or not.
      I also think it’s not a bad thing to make kids feel good about themselves. This is not to say it’s blind praise, but it’s to make them feel valuable and empowered to tackle problems. Just because a kid doesn’t succeed on a test doesn’t mean they are unworthy of praise, I think it just takes a little insight into what part of the test they deserve praise for and what parts they need work on.
      And I think you’re absolutely right that I think many of our parenting styles may be in direct contrast to things we didn’t receive in our own childhoods. Just moving to the other extreme doesn’t make it right.

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