Response to “Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem”

iraq-81479_640Dear Readers,

Last week, Vera, a long-time follower of mine and a wonderful blogger, recommended that I read a blog post from A Holistic Journey titled Praise, Smarts, and the Myth of Self-Esteem. As the title suggests, the article discusses the theory and the author’s belief that it is more effective to praise a student’s efforts as opposed to their smarts.

My Story:

Before I tell you my opinion about this theory, I will share a bit of my background in education. Before I even started school, my mother made sure I was well prepared…very well prepared. Before I even started kindergarten, I knew how to read, write, and spell at a level well above kids my age. When I was not in school, I studied and read, and I read and studied.

In middle school, my mother did set a standard for grades: I was to get As and some Bs. Did this stress me out? No. Because ingrained in me was something very important: if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. So each time my mother read my straight A report card, she would say “keep it up,” or “if you keep it up, maybe you’ll get a scholarship.” It was not “keep being smart” or “if you stay as smart as you are now, you’ll get a scholarship.” Because the concept of hard work was ingrained in me, I believed I was smart because I worked hard, and because of that, I believed everyone had it in them to get the grades I did if they worked as hard as I did. And yes, I received multiple scholarships.

 Do I Agree?: Yes and No

Diana’s post states that “when we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” This is something I respectively don’t agree with fully. I think parents tell their children they’re smart because 1) they truly believe it and/or 2) they want their children to believe the same.  There also needs to be a distinction between praising and complimenting. Why shouldn’t we honestly compliment our children and students for being smart? Everyone likes to feel good and should always feel that way.

Setting up for failure:

When it comes to praise, feedback, and the like, there is a BIG difference between the realistic and the ridiculous. For example:

1) I believe that girls should not be told they’re princesses. I’m not talking about affectionately calling a child a princess (every girl is a princess), but instilling in their heads that they are indeed royalty above everyone else. There has actually been a study done about the negative personality effects of this. I’m sure you can imagine; however, see the “Not every child is the same” section.

2) Students are told at a young age that college will get them anywhere, that a college grad is superior to one who is not, and so on. Yet, when we look at the percentage of unemployed and heavily indebted college grads, what should we think? Yes, college grads should of course be praised, but they must be prepared with a realistic view of the world.

3) Parents need to teach their children that they are not the greatest in the world, that there will be someone out there who is better at something, that they will be competing against many, many other people, and that the only way to be truly successful is honest, hard work. I will never forget the story about a teacher’s graduation speech that discussed these very same topics and the backlash he received from parents who were blind to the reality of the world.

Not every child is the same:

Diana’s post states that praising a child’s smarts can cause stress and pressure. This may be true, but I believe that the way praise and feedback affects a child depends on their personality.  Yes, some may feel pressure, while others may just let it roll off their shoulder, and others may take it humbly or to the head. Isn’t the lesson of humility, maturity, and comfort with one’s self all part of growing up and getting older?

I cannot stress the significance of individuality. And what I mean is, not everyone who works hard will receive the same results. This was something I learned the hard way. Before I was an English major, I was in pre-med and no matter hard I studied, cried, and prayed, I got Ds, Cs, and Fs. Up until that point, I always got As because of my hard work. And it took some time to understand that no matter how hard one may try at something, if they’re not good at it, they’re just not good at it. Another way to put it is like this: I have a horrible singing voice. No matter how hard I may try, no matter how many lessons I may take, I will never be able to sing beautifully.

Bottom Line:

As Diana’s post states, “I absolutely believe in the inherent worth of every individual, and that no child should feel unloved or unworthy – because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God.”

Yes, I do believe that it’s more effective to praise a child’s efforts. I also think that it’s okay to compliment a child on their smarts, being realistic about it and their future. We are all not the same. Not everyone who goes to college is smart, and not everyone who doesn’t go to college is stupid. We are all capable of doing great things…in our own way, in our own time.

Peace and Love,


Posted on January 27, 2014, in About Me, Education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Love this, Ariffa. Thank you.

    I love how we can stimulate one another as bloggers and thinkers — and educators. =)
    I appreciate your story and your description of the work ethic you developed from an early age. I agree that it certainly feels good to hear one is smart. The article I referenced – where I quoted the “look smart, name of the game” conclusion on the close of hundreds of case studies – was warning against building a foundation of sand on the smarts of a child – whether they’re real or not. That there are more helpful, important things to emphasize in a child’s development. Did you read the original article? That would be requisite in this case. As Navigator, one of my most thoughtful readers, commented on my post, there is also the subtle but powerful force of projection at work under many an effusive praise: we tell our kids they are how we so want to see them, whether it’s realistic or not.

    I also agree on the inflated merit of the college track – a widespread awareness among homeschoolers. The point is that families that do take that track can put overweight importance on innate intelligence. Agreed on the third point under Failure.

    As to individuality, have you read the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It ran long as a NY Times bestseller. My response to the author came out in a homeschool magazine last summer. You would have LOTS to write about from the book. The two girls responded entirely differently to the gestapo pressure of their Yale Law professor mom. But from my 13+ years of study in holistic medicine and health, I know such intensity of pressure is simply not good for anyone, children esp, no matter how compliant they are. I’ve also discovered it is as important to know what one’s calling is not, as it is. =)

    You wrapped it up nicely with the call to realism. One reason we homeschool is precisely so that our son can develop his person – character, gifts, and all – his way, in his time.

    What a well-written post.
    An aside: the back-link takes your readers to my home page. Since you’re referencing a particular post and encouraging readers toward it, it might be user-friendly for them to be able to access it readily if you’d link to this instead:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the engagement. Keep up the passionate writing. I’ll tell Navigator about this post. I appreciate your audience and the eagerness to share my work with yours.


  2. Excellent points beautifully presented Ariffa. One of the biggest failings of North American educational systems is the one-size-fits-all traditional approach. Children are individuals, they learn differently but they should not be penalized or pigeon-holed because of that.

    There are exceptional teachers who do a wonderful job with students – but it takes commitment, intentionality, love and genuine desire for each student to achieve his/her best. To promote learning and not merely education.

    Keep shining the light, Ariffa, Diana, others…

    • Very well said, Vera! Just like with students, teachers are forced into the constraints of the education system. Neither side is able to fully express their creativity and individuality. It’s so terribly frustrating to know what is wrong with the system and not have the power or voice to fix it or be heard. Even so, we must all indeed continue being strong lights to brighten this darkness and help people to see. Thank you for reminding me of that.


  3. Hello, Ariffa. Diana, who tends to be far too kind when it comes assessing certain commenters on her delightful blog, cued me to your interesting post here. There is much that I find commendable in this thoughtful piece.

    For instance, I completely agree with your take on the princess issue. It can be a simple and lovely expression of love towards a little girl, or it can be perverted into a micro culture of narcissism, a core topic of mine. I also agree with your thought on how our society promotes university as being the superior life option, when this is not necessarily so. University has become what high school was in terms of individual prestige just a generation or two ago.

    Still, I am inclined to agree with Diana’s perspective on the issue of praising kids’ intelligence. Granted that individuals will have relative strengths and weaknesses, and certain endeavours or topics will always prove problematic or vexing no matter how hard the effort. Witness me and Ikea furniture, for example.

    However, praising the intelligence (or any attribute) of a child tends to place the focus on this as an innate aspect of their developing sense of self. Then his or her self is not what’s good about the child, but some rather some attribute of them is what is good about them.

    There is a logical corollary to this, which I suspect children can intuitively fathom: if they’re praised for being smart when they achieve something cognitive, when they can’t figure something out, it is implied that they are not good. One might argue that this general concern may also apply to praising beauty in our daughters, only to produce insecure or narcissistic young women.

    Praising intelligence may also be linked with your 2). I am inclined to suggest that such parents who unduly emphasize university are also ones who unduly praise intelligence. In this, I fear they are actually projecting their own unconscious sense of inadequacy onto their own children.

    You make a valid distinction between compliment and praise, which appears to be one of degree. I think one can compliment a child and still adhere to Diana’s tenet: “That was a very clever solution that you came up with.”

    I am not an expert, so please take my thoughts with a grain of salt. Very interesting post—well done.

    • Thank you for this insightful comment! I tend to find very often that those who are not “experts” or involved in the many broken systems are the ones who know how to fix them and have the best ideas and insights. I’m no “expert” as well, so I am humbled that you took the time to read my post and that you found it interesting.

      Your mention of how “university has become what high school was in terms of individual prestige” reminded me of something I have been thinking about a lot recently: I’ve made it quite clear in my writings that I believe the education system to be extremely broken and frankly, corrupt, in reference to university. College grads with their associates and bachelors are having a hard time finding a career so they believe that going to grad school will help them. These students then graduate dealing with the same issues but in greater debt, and who is truly benefited? And because this is a common belief, I believe that soon post-grad education will eventually replace an associates and bachelors education. This of course does not pertain to jobs that require such an education. However, said jobs still require the experience…

      • I suspect that you may be correct. I interpret this trend as being another aspect to a narcissistic culture, as per the late Christopher Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’ book.

      • I will have to add this book to my reading list.

      • It’s a bit intellectual and technical, it that’s your cup of tea. It helps to be familiar with the basics of narcissism, especially the psychoanalytic perspective (Freudian). I am going to reference this in a sequel book that I am working on, but will use ordinary language to explain things. Lasch’s work is considered a modern classic.

      • I will definitely check it out!

    • I am late to your reply, Navigator, and your attention to this remark will be later still for your travels, but I would never take your thoughts with a mere grain of salt.

  4. I really liked your post. It’s so difficult to find the balance as a parent between praising your kids just because to you they are so great, no matter what and praising them for their own efforts and capabilities. I like your example of trying so hard to do well in pre-med and only getting Cs and Ds. But I also note that you did still give it a go. Sometimes praising selectively can lead to self-limiting behaviour, just as much as praising indiscriminately may have the reverse effect.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! I absolutely agree with you, and it came to mind that praising is almost like a double-edged sword in that there is good and bad side to it. However, it’s effect is dependent on many factors. Thanks again!

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