I was always the proverbial fifth wheel of the many youth sports teams I participated in while in elementary school, yet at the end of each season, I would receive the same trophy as the polished point guard sitting next to me. Those “presents” made me feel special at the time, yet looking back, I realize that I didn’t deserve any awards for my lack of interest in the game. Those awards, exciting as it was to receive them, did not motivate me to listen to the coach, practice more, or put more effort into my playing.
What grand moral is this tale supposed to teach, you ask?
Rewarding children for participation does not compel them to try harder—it conditions them to expect rewards for just showing up.
Lavishing children with praise for their abilities instead of encouraging them to persevere does not boost confidence—it leads to narcissism.
Journalist and author Ashley Merryman explains, “Beginning in the 1980s, many parents, educators and coaches became consumed by the theory that high self-esteem was essential to psychological well-being, and that children should be protected from experiences potentially damaging to a developing self-image.” That theory was disproved years ago.
Research has since shown that such practices actually have adverse effects: they inflate children’s egos and cause them to give up easily. When children—talented or not—are constantly told that they are talented, they believe it. However, at the first sign of failure, those same children bail out. Believing that they have failed their smart selves, they stick to simpler, more familiar tasks that ensure success—or the illusion of success. Conversely, children who are complimented for their tenacity are discouraged less easily.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, praising children for their innate abilities promotes a fixed mindset, which assumes that one’s level of intelligence is inherent and fixed, while praising them for their perseverance promotes a growth mindset, which says that intelligence is gained through trying, failing, and trying again.
In life, “you lose more than you win.” Instead of maintaining an “everybody’s a winner” attitude, accept that losses—learning opportunities—will occur. The anxieties of a teenager who’s been called “smart” his or her entire life but is currently struggling at school will not be assuaged by a simple “You’ll do better next time”—a cliched sentiment whose weak encouragement seems to only mock that teenager’s fizzling abilities. To him or her, putting in more effort is proof of failure, and failure must be avoided at all costs. If he or she already has the brains to fix the problem, struggling with concepts in order to learn them isn’t necessary, right? A student with a growth mindset, on the other hand, realizes that what you put in is what you get out.
Throughout my (admittedly short) life, adults have frequently told my mom that my younger brother and I are “precocious” and “smart”—titles she always politely rebuffs. “It doesn’t matter how smart they are,” she’ll reply. “There are many smart people who are proud and lazy because they think they can do things without studying or working hard. What really matters is how hard they work.”
And for that I am grateful.