When I was a kid, people told me I was smart. I'm not sure what they based that on, because one of the strongest memories of my youth is begging my parents to put "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" on the stereo, so I could scream along into my spoon-microphone. As I recall, "don't give us none of your aggravation" came out something like "buh flabba nabba no wag-ah-way-bah."
Then there was fifth grade, when I placed into an experimental program called "Concept IIB." Instead of set curricula (or tests, or structure, or much of anything scholastic), we spent lots of time sitting around on our own, thinking about stuff. One of my favorite pastimes was using a napkin as a "butter-pult" and seeing how many pats I could stick to the ceiling. No one ever cleaned away those stalagtites, and as far as I know they're still there. A lasting, rancid legacy of my prodigious intellect.
I liked being thought of as smart, for a while. But when school got tougher, and the grades didn't come nearly as easily, I started to panic. I remember wondering if this was the limit to my intelligence, and if the people who told me I was smart were either idiots, or just blowing smoke up my ass. Or both. All I began to care about was keeping up the smart image, despite my doubts, and it took me a while to realize that I built the most self-esteem when I knew I had worked hardest to achieve something.
A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me this article about "How Not to Talk To Your Kids," and as I read I felt myself nodding along like a devotee at a Pentecostal megachurch. Building esteem was all the rage among '70s parents (right up there with fondue and key parties), but this new study de-bunks the idea that complimenting smartness is all that useful. In fact, there is an "inverse power of praise," whereby some teenagers have trained themselves to read between the lines. If you praise a kid's intelligence, the article says, he's likely to think you're condescending to someone who you think has reached his peak. Whereas if you hold off on the flattery and instead urge him to keep trying, he'll assume you respect his abilities and will stay motivated.
I've caught myself telling Robert he's smart, partly as a reflex of what I heard as a kid. It was hard to control that reflex, but ever since I started praising his effort rather than his intelligence the change in his personality has been palpable. When we first started playing with Legos, Robert often had trouble using his little hands to connect all the little pieces. He had good design instincts, but the engineering was for crap. And when the little planes crumbled in his hands -- which was often -- he'd throw a fit and proclaim most stridently that he would never! play! Legos! again!
He didn't merely dislike failing, he couldn't cope with it. So I began suggesting that he keep trying, that with practice he'd get better, and that you can always learn something new. He'd keep on experimenting, and I'd show him a trick or two, and when his creations started holding together I praised him for persevering. He still has trouble every so often when he tries new things that don't work out, but now it doesn't faze him at all. He just picks up and starts over.
So from now on, there will be far less mention of cleverness and more of persistence. With luck, I'll raise a happy, successful pair of dumb-alecks.