Too late for my kids…

by Natalie P.

February 20, 2007 | Filed Under Parenting, The Heartless Bitch Way | 1 Comment

Fabulana, a long time HBI member, author, and  instigator and part of my “intelligent agent wetware” network, sent me this link on the power and peril of praise…  it’s a fascinating read on studies completed on how praise (or certain kinds of praise) actually undermines self-confidence.   It’s a long read, but worth it if you have young kids.

The message in the article is that generic “you’re smart” praise doesn’t really work. And that in the end it fosters an attitude of “I should only work at what I’m good at”, and “if it’s hard work, I’m not good at it, so I should do something else.”

In fact, from a teacher (after the age of 12) praise is interpreted as “you need extra encouragement because you’re not really that smart”. I can see that translates forward as we become adults –  empty praise really doesn’t work – in fact, it often has the opposite effect doesn’t it?   How many times have we felt that, “He/she is just saying that to make me feel better”?

The article and research is suggesting that there is greater benefit to praising the effort the child expended and the process they went through, rather than the child themselves.  The difference between saying, “Wow, you are really smart/talented/etc.” and, “I’m really impressed with how much effort and energy you put into that project!”

It makes me wonder what happens when we do the same thing with our daughters, telling them that they are “pretty”…  I cringe every time I hear that come from parents, grandparents, etc…   Watch someone with a toddler boy vs a toddler girl. How many times does she get told she is “pretty”, while he is praised for being “clever” or strong, etc…?   Sure little boys occaisionally get told they are “handsome” but not nearly as often as little girls are told they are “pretty”. 

Let’s face it – society tends to praise boys on their skills and girls on their appearance.   What message are we giving the girls when we do this?  Are we telling them that their appearance is what is most important to us? That their appearance is the most important asset they have?  No wonder MaClean’s magazine felt compelled to have an issue entitled, “Why do we dress our daughters like skanks?” – Um… because all their lives we have told them that being “pretty”,being “attractive” – is most important, and as teens, that “skank” look is what is deemed to be attractive? 

Everyone wants to blame the media (who is NOT innocent – don’t get me wrong), or the retailers, or the music industry, but nobody wants to look in the mirror and accept responsibilty for their own behaviors. The truth of the matter is that we have to look at ourselves and our own attitudes and the messages we deliver/support before we can attack the external influences with a clear concience. 

What messages do YOU give your daughters, nieces, granddaughters? What messages do you give them that say that it is more important to be feminine, attractive and compliant, than it is to be smart, outspoken, and a leader?

 (And I have to give a small Kudos here to TDCanada Trust for a commercial that shows parents investing in their daughter’s hockey career! – I only wish it was available online.)

What I also found fascinating in the article was the supposition that there is a genetic link to motivation/perseverance.  I’ve often wondered about that…  Why does one kid just cave and quit at the slightest hurdle, while the other slogs on and refuses to give up?

While my sample set is small, I have often wondered how two people can experience similar travails and one survives and perseveres, while the other curmbles. For example, I know someone (Person A), who had a gruff, demanding father who told him he’d be nothing without that piece of paper from university.  His father wasn’t warm or supportive, and his mother, while loving, always deferred to the father.   I know another person (Person B), whose father was very similar. Both are brilliant, articulate and sensitive individuals. In truth, Person B’s father didn’t even give Person B as much as Person A got.  Person A never really wanted for anything when it came right down to it.  Person B was left at home on his own while the family focussed on his younger brother who was a hockey prodigy. Person B’s father told him he had to get that degree and that ring on his pinky finger to get anywhere in life.  Person B turned out OK by all accounts – full scholarships through university, that degree and ring on his finger – healthy, productive, happy, and person A turned into an emotional wreck who, despite his obvious  brilliance never completed a degree, suffered depression and anxiety issues that severely impacted his life, and is perhaps finally starting to get his life together in his 30’s…

Then I just look at my own two kids. Same parents – same “nurture” (at least, initially), but what motivated one, did NOTHING for the other. What was a learning experience for one, was meaningless to the other. One could be “warned” about the dangers – the other had to experience them to get it. You can’t parent two kids like that the SAME way in the end. You can’t pay lip service to the fact that they are different people. They really think, react and LEARN in fundamentally different ways. When I was young and naive, I thought you had to treat your kids “the same” to be “fair” with them. I now know that in reality, to be fair – you have to treat your kids as individuals, and that doesn’t always mean using the same techniques, tools or responses in exactly the same way with each child.

Yep. I really think the personality and genetics plays a huge part in it all. Nurture is only one component.

You know, It takes me back to the comments of a friend who had two kids who turned out pretty great… When I asked her what her secret was, she said to me, “It’s 5% parenting and 95% the personality of the child.” At this point in my life, I’m inclined to believe it.  Besides, it’s an easier out than accepting the fact that when they are 30, and in therapy, they’ll be blaming ME – because let’s face it, they ALWAYS blame the mother.  Freud hated us. And god knows, my ex is always blaming me for any issues with the kids. Heaven forefend the father could have had anything to do with them having issues or problems, right?!

In fact, it’s such a cliché, that I have a friend with a young daughter who jokes that instead of an RESP (Registered Education Savings Plan), they are investing in an RTSP – a Registered Therapy Savings Plan.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense to me. I wish I’d thought of it.

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1 comment so far
  1. Kylie February 24, 2007 6:31 am

    As a mother of a four-year-old boy, I want to thank you for this link. I am reading it carefully. I know I constantly tell my son he is smart; it’s mostly spontaneous because he really is. But I do want him to know that trying his best is what matters. I don’t want him to be afraid NOT to get the praise. Thanks for the timely warning.


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