serenity praiser



An article that has been getting a lot of airtime in my household (and extended friends/family) is this one printed last week in New York Magazine. It’s truly worth reading, even for those of you who never click on anything lest you ruin your train of thought, but I’ll give you one of the theses: the act of praise might be damaging your kids. I’ll put it another way: never congratulate a kid for something he has no control over.

The article perfectly illustrates why so many of us were labeled as SMART! early on, and then proceeded to get shitty grades for fifteen years. It also accounts for several shame-spirals you may have experienced, and perhaps even a lifelong feeling that you were destined for something greater, but took a wrong turn.

Specifically, they tested kids who were told how intelligent they were, and then compared them to kids who were praised for how hard they worked. By and large, the so-called “hard-working” kids treated their brain like a muscle that could get bigger, and opted for more challenges. The so-called “intelligent” kids opted out, lest they disappoint. It was rather heartbreaking, especially if any of it rings true for you.

Why do humans find such value in things they can’t control? We look upon beautiful people as better people, as though they were “chosen,” imbued with secrets from their Creator that others can’t know. We give beautiful people such power; we make them our CEOs, we hold the door for them, we listen when they speak.

The same thing happens with money. Truly rich people are viewed with a kind of awe, trepidation. If you hang around them long enough, you notice rich people never pay for anything; they don’t have to, it’s on the house. You could argue that many millionaires are self-made, but it’s the opposite that we truly worship: the heirs of a fortune, the golden boy about to accept his inheritance, the blue bloods of Kennedys and Rockefellers.

Both beauty and money are almost entirely out of our control, and yet we cram them both with praise – it’s no wonder people who are gorgeous and wealthy do everything they can to keep both, through shady deals and surgery.

Tessa and I have a vague theory I call “eggs and butter,” which simply states that nobody really knows what’s good for you at any given time (“eggs will kill you!” “eggs keep you alive!” “use margarine!” “never use margarine, it’ll kill you!” etc.) The same might hold true for this NY Mag article, but there’s something about it that makes clear sense.

Today, I wore this T-shirt:


…made by my favorite shirt guy on eBay. I have another shirt with an apple on it that Lucy loves, so I pointed to this apple, and asked Lucy what it was. She thought for a few seconds and then said “Computer!”

Several things ran through my head:

a) Sweet Jesus, I want to hug my daughter for being so goddamn brilliant!

b) Wait, how the hell did she know that?

c) Um, so “branding” works on a 22-month-old?

d) Take THAT, Bill Gates!

e) Must… not… call… her… “smart”…

And so Tessa and I just gushed and said, “That’s really good, sweetheart, it IS our computer!”

Maybe we’re child psychology dorks, but if we can keep the Lulubeans happy about things she can control, then maybe she won’t need half – or any – of the drugs I’m on.

0 thoughts on “serenity praiser

  1. Tanya

    “even for those of you who never click on anything lest you ruin your train of thought.” Damn, Ian, why don’t you just strip me naked and stand me in front of everyone! Totally busted on this point. And more importantly, THANKS for sharing! Yikes! I’ve been calling Caleb smart for most of his 3.5 years! Ack! I’m going to think harder about that now…

  2. Neva

    Thanks for the link Ian. This is fascinating stuff although I don’t think it’s entirely new thinking. It reminds me of the idea of using “I” statements in communicating with your spouse or specificing exactly what a kid did wrong rather than just saying “you are so naughty” etc so that the spouse or kid can have the opportunity to change and improve without feeling bad about themselves. It makes sense to praise the process and the key steps that a child does right rather than the global “oh you are so smart” type of praise if for no other reason than to prevent labeling.
    Labeling is tricky stuff. As the article suggests I think there can be serious negatives to seeing yourself as “the smart kid”. I know I remember the phenomenon of competing to see who studied the least for a test and could still ace it. The lack of effort was the more impressive feat in our circle. I also recognized the phenomenon she described of not wanting to try anything you couldn’t do well. When you’re “the smart kid” you are automatically out of the running for “the nice kid” and “the athletic kid” and even “the pretty kid” so you don’t even want to try to be those. I’ve always thought however that labeling yourself as the “smart kid” even with it’s disadvantages was better than the alternative “not so smart kid” and that’s what scares me a little about this. I see already that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher has her ideas about who the “smart ones” are and I think she thinks my kid is one of them. I have mixed feeling about this for sure. I’m hoping that in the Chapel Hill schools being a “smart kid” won’t be as unusual as it was for me in Salisbury and hopefully smart kids will be well represented among all groups within the school. I think like anything else in life what happens in school can be cushioned and/or exacerbated at home and I hope to make academic achievement seem important but not the end all in her life (as I think it was for me). This article was useful to reinforce that ideal.
    I was also interested in the point about how when parents praise kids so generally they are actually praising themselves. This is such an easy path to get sucked into – wanting your child to be the best at things you value or you’ve always wanted to do well rather than letting them be who they are. Sometimes I think having a special needs child who will never be able to compete directly has totally changed my way of thinking about my children and helped me appreciate them individually for their own beautiful uniquenesses and not how they might outdo some other child their age. There are advantages to everything I guess.

  3. Claverack Weekender

    Wow, has NY Mag really started publishing serious articles? I cancelled our subscription years ago during their weak attempt to be more like the NY Observer. I still can’t imagine taking parenting advice from them, even though the piece seems moderately well researched.

  4. xuxE

    if you dig this idea you should take a look at montessori for Lucy. the teachers don’t praise the kids. they want the kids to do their work for their own satisfaction, not to please the teachers. praise is like a “doggie treat” and the teachers don’t engage in that, it’s something they stress for home life as well.
    that was one of the most compelling things about it in my experience sending my kids to montessori school (although each school is a bit different and some have weird twists you have to be aware of).
    the other thing they do that reinforces the work ethic is staging the work activities from easy level to hard level – so you see the attractive cool looking hard level activities on the top shelf, and you may see older kids using those things, but you know you have to complete the lower levels first in order to use them.
    there are multi-age classrooms, there are no grades, no report cards, just kids who have done the work to get to the higher level and other kids who haven’t finished the lower level work yet. the only way to get from the lower level to the higher level is to do the work. the work is its own reward.
    we live in a fast paced, media-sound-byte sized instant gratification type of society. there’s no, like, planting corn and waiting for it to grow, instead there’s 24 hour cartoon networks.
    so i think you have to help your kids get those work-focused building blocks in place because it’s so easy for them to coast, and so easy for them to just never acquire the basic skills of focusing and working through the ups and downs of success or to acheive a long-term goal.

  5. Claverack Weekender

    We chose Montessori as well, and highly recommend it. There are two major accrediting organizations, but as xuxE says things vary wildlly school-to-school even among the accredited ones.

  6. Not today

    Very interesting article; I’ve been thinking about it all night.
    For fear of failure, I sabotaged my own success in ways that boggle my mind today. My own academic “laziness” (as I like to call it) was not rooted in mushy positive-parenting, but the fact that I was raised to believe there was no other option to academic success. Being a pleaser, I didn’t want to disappoint.
    I can understand why this was a big issue in my house, since Dad never had the opportunity to go to school and Mom probably has the U.S. equivalent of a 10th grade education. They knew that here in the US, education is the one variable that most effects economic class.
    In a personal experience that may speak to this study, my older sister, who started school as an ESL student, was selected for tutoring when she hit public junior high, so that she could “catch up.” She soon caught up and then exceeded her classmates in academic accomplishment — she learned the power she possessed to get ahead academically and kept at it.
    Thanks for posting this article. This will have an impact on how I raise my kids.

  7. oliver

    Wow. A mind blower–it echoed so many of my own thoughts. Thanks for the tip-off, Ian. But then you’re so gifted, I expect nothing less.


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