Thursday, September 13, 2007

Beware of Praise (of your talent)

My son's teacher pointed out this article to me in New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids. It covers a fair amount of ground, but the gist of it is that empty praise in the intention of bolstering self-esteem is actually harmful. And, what seems to be relevant to writers, praising kids for their intelligence (saying they're "smart") rather than recognizing them for hard work and problem solving, ends up having measurable negative effects.

For writers, the issue, rather than being praised for "intelligence" is that of being praised for having "talent." In the article, Bryson writes:
For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

In talking with students of writing, we often encourage our most promising students by telling them that they have a great amount of talent. It's interesting, based on this article, to consider that this sort of praise received early on by the best young writers, actually might do long-term harm. Instead, we might focus a lot more on their work in process and ability to revise and improve scripts in the wake of failure. I think back to one of my writing professors in college, and the one thing I remember her telling me is this: "you're a fine writer, Pat, but you're not a first-draft sort of writer. It doesn't come from you to the page fully-formed. You'll always have to work hard to get your writing to a high level, with many drafts, but you can do it." I was 20 years old and believed it wholeheartedly. How much better for her to tell me this, than to say, "Oh, you're one of the most talented writers we've ever had here."

Our media doesn't help young writers, especially in the realm of fiction, where reviewers seem constantly on the lookout for the breakout first novel. They want to discover promising new talent, undiscovered genius. For the writer's sake, it would be better if reviewers worked harder at finding breakout books by writers who had three or four novels under their belts, who had weathered success and failure in their artistic attempts, and who finally grew their writing into something fine. (Note: I'm not saying reviewers should give an "A" for effort.) The sophomore slump with novelists is a phenomenon completely expected by reviewers, but isn't this all set up by the overpraise of first novels?

As adult writers, it's also worth looking at this article and thinking about what we're internally seeking from the outside world in response to our work. Are we looking for confirmation and recognition of our in-born artistic talent? And if we don't find it, do we become bitter and resentful? Or do we hope that audiences are able to fully participate in what we create (be it stage, film, or prose), and that if this time around we do not succeed in engaging our audience, that we can return with a new effort to try again?

Persistence and resilience may be the most important qualities to develop within ourselves if we seek long and productive lives as artists.


Dan Milstein said...

Way interesting article, Pat. Really gets one thinking. In my all-time favorite book about directing (A Sense of Direction), William Ball says that, without exception, all the great directors he knows are great praisers.

Though, of course, it's critical that it be both sincere (praise, not flattery), and specific. In a lot of ways, the article seemed to be calling out the dangers in vague, insincere praise, or in praise of innate talents.

Also, it was interesting that almost all of the (excellent) research was in the context of schools/teachers, and yet the article kept on reading it as applying to parents. Which seemed a bit complex. It seems at least possible that kids thrive on/need different kinds of interactions from parents than from teachers.

Great stuff, all-in-all

patrick said...

That's really interesting, to think of the difference in effect and interaction with kids between parents and kids. I think, as you point out, that it's easy to conflate the two, and that might not be wise.

Of course, in my comments, I took an even bigger leap forward, and said that it also matters what sort of self-speak we engage in. Reaching, probably, but I feel it might have relevance.