The “Power” of Praise (Smart Homeschoolers)

My son is musical. I mean really musical. He is able to take a song he has heard once, and play it on the piano or guitar. If you hum a note, he’ll tell you which key it’s in. He can pull out all the different sound elements from a song and reincorporate them on his own instruments.

He’s 8.

We don’t make a big deal out of it. In fact, we hardly think about it in the “he’s a genuis” sense. It’s who our son is. And man, we really like to hear him play, because it is so much fun!

He loves to play for people. He always gets a great reception. Sometimes, though, people lavish him with praise. “You are the best player I’ve ever heard.” “You are a genius.” “You’re a prodigy.”

That makes me uncomfortable. I respond with, “Yes, he absolutely loves music. It’s his passion right now.”

I want my son to have permission to not be a genius and to not always be a fantabulous musician. I want him to be safe failing.

I’m not the only one who has this idea. The New York Times published an article a couple of days ago about ongoing studies on praise.

Their first study looked at how students regarded their ability to succeed on a difficult test.

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

The next part of the study, they gave everyone a test that was too hard, and everyone failed. The children who were praised for their smarts were highly stressed during the test. The ones that were praised for their effort, had fun with the hard test, and didn’t mind if they failed.

But I don’t need to read an article like this to know the effects of being labeled the gifted child or the “smart one” – I lived it. Having that label of smart and gifted hanging over my head was torture – both when I did poorly and when I did well.

When I did poorly, I beat myself up, my teachers were disappointed, and I was afraid to try things that I was considered “good” at, because I didn’t want to fail. Anything other than and ‘A’, and even homework that wasn’t perfect, garnished a “you know you can do this better. You’re smart.”

When I did well, my friends and teachers congratulated me for being smart and then the bar was set, yet again, for me to do well, or even better the next time.

Smart is relative. I was considered “smart” when I was in school. Well, up until grad school, when I suddenly was put in a place with much smarter people than me. Rather than focussing on my passion for the topic, all I could see was how I was the screw-up, and that totally blew my self-image out the window.I read somewhere that B students tend to be the most successful in life, because they are capable of getting decent grades, while not making grades (or academic excellence) their main focus. Instead of trying to live up to a “smart” status, they focus on getting the job done, and then putting their energy into what they love – whatever that is.

Being a “B” student in grad school, I’d have to agree. Once I had resigned myself to being a B student, it made the whole process a lot more enjoyable, and I “found” my authentic self. I was able to pursue fitness, hold a full time job, take fun courses and fill my time with things other than school.

I got so comfortable with being a “B” student, that my last semester, I even applied for an “incomplete” in one of my classes so I could take an extra few weeks to finish a term paper. And I didn’t feel guilty! And guess what, I got an “A” on it. Boy was I pleasantly surprised!

In homeschooling, though, “smart” can be relative right off the bat. With no grades, and no comparisons, it’s easier to see how there are always smarter, more experienced people in the world. It makes it easier to focus on the task and learning what we need to, rather than the performance.

For more thoughts on praise, check out Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards. It’s about school mostly, but certainly applies to homeschooling, and parenting as well.

Not all parents agree with this, though, as is mentioned in the New York Times article. Perhaps, it’s a matter of how we go about giving praise, and what our expectations are as a result of that praise. Certainly, the best we can do is look at our kids and see what they respond to. That’s really the only gauge we can safely and consistently use.

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4 Responses to “The “Power” of Praise (Smart Homeschoolers)”

  1. sprittibee Says:

    Great article. Very thought provoking! I agree that careful praise and lots of smiles are necessary parts of homeschooling. Our main aim is character, academics are second. I feel that you can always learn academics (even without any guidance – just due to God-given natural interests and learning how to do your own research). Character, however… that is a different story.

    My kids took a standardized test recently in our state. They have consistantly done well on these tests… but I ALWAYS tell them that I KNOW they are smart and I don’t need ANY TEST to tell me that. I tell them that I don’t care if they fail. I just want them to do their best and know that I love them even if they don’t score perfectly – or even if they fail.

    I have found that it really calms their nerves to know that mom still loves them if they bottom out on the test… and that the state isn’t going to try and take them out of homeschooling if they don’t do great, either. I mean… what do public school kids do if they fail the test? They don’t get told that they have to homeschool now.

    I’m glad Arkansas changed their laws about the tests because used to, the kids were told they DID have to go to public school if they scored a certain percentage and lower. I couldn’t live in a state that put that kind of pressure on the kids to perform. Especially on tests that are given to kids who:
    1. could be in the middle of their school year rather than the end (haven’t covered enough material)
    2. may be younger than most others in their grade
    3. may have never been in a classroom setting or have taken a standardized test before (adding to the nervousness of the child)
    4. may have had an entirely different scope and sequence taught to them than what is covered by the public schools (and therefore, how can you test them adequately with a test geared for the public school?)

    Anyway… I digress… Thanks again for your thought-provoking post and the reminder that we need to temper our praise with humility!

  2. Brenda Marie Says:

    I really liked this article. I’d read it before you posted it here but it definitely has a point and I’ve been working on it with my dd. Great blog post!

  3. southerngirlmusings Says:

    Thanks for sharing this article…interesting read indeed. Not only did I experience the labelling early on but things were rather dicey for me being one of a handful (never more than 5 of us) in honors classes from elementary to high school but considered to be “acting white” by many of my social peers. As an African-American, for some reason many other African-Americans felt that being “smart” was not cool but that is another converstaion for another day. 🙂 Also, my parents (especially my mom) was and still is a praise junkie. She did a lot of comparisons between my brother and I and she does it with my kids. She is getting better but only because I constantly stop her when I know that she is going to go down that road and because I have talked to her about it. Thanks again for sharing!

  4. Joanne Says:

    Great post, and a very important message. Thanks!


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