While spending time with some recent first-time parents I've noticed that on several occasions the parent would praise their child by saying something like "wow, you're so smart" and then immediately stop themselves in mid stride and change the praise to something like "wow, you did a good job". They were making sure to praise the effort and not the child.
My friend Michael linked me over to this interesting article about the talent myth by Malcolm Gladwell. It's mainly about business but it got me thinking about my childhood. Research has found that children who are praised for their intelligence instead of their efforts soon become reluctant to tackle difficult tasks and begin slacking off. This observation hit home for me.
I was an immigrant kid who was thrown into grade one after the school year had already begun. I so quickly learned to read and write this completely alien language that I was paraded around like a trophy. They also determined that I might be a math prodigy so in grade two I was sent off to the grade four class during math lessons. The head-swelling praise began there.
By the time I was in middle school and in the "gifted" program I was so full of myself that I was well on my way to becoming a dysfunctional underachiever. Most schoolwork came easy to me but if some task required real work I would dismiss it or completely ignore it. I started spending more time in the Principle's office or at home than I did in the classroom. I always passed with decent grades but only with the least amount of effort that I could expend. If people saw me working hard at anything then they might start to doubt my talents.
Later when the Rubiks Cube became a huge fad in the eighties I got my hands on one and played around with it for a few minutes. I was surprised to find that I couldn't immediately solve it and so rather than work at it I avoided it completely. I guess I was afraid that if I tried and failed then it would completely shatter my self-image, so I never really tried. I pretended not to care about that silly cube until the fad finally faded away. To this day I have never really tried to solve the cube. It's been my dirty little secret and it's bothered me ever since. I'm glad to finally get it off my chest (sorry, the skeletons in my closet are lame like that). I now realize that effort and determination are as crucial or more crucial than innate talents. Maybe those parents are onto something. I think I'll find a cube and solve it.