Monday, February 12, 2007

How Not To Talk To Your Kids - Part 2

From Po & Ash:

When researching praise for our New York article, one of the first things that we needed to understand was the concept of what exactly was praise, and what was it supposed to do accomplish. Essentially, praise is a communication of a warm, enthusiastic response.

But here's where it gets tricky. Is praise a reward? Is saying "Good job, Honey" for an "A" on an exam the same as handing a kid an iTunes gift-card? There are both physiological and psychological factors that need to be taken into account to answer that question.

Each of us, when we are growing up, develops our own motivation personality. Just as you never forget how to ride a bike, parts of your brain never forget what is was like to learn to ride a bike. In our brains is the reward center, the nucleus accumbens. When we learn to do hard things, (ride a bike, earn an A grade, learn to read) this nucleus accumbens gets lit up with dopa. Our brain records what kind of rewards were present at the time - how did I get that dopa? And we kinda wire our brains to expect those same mix of rewards in the future - how will I get more dopa?

Lead by University of Rochester's Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, there is an influential school of scholarship on motivation. Deci and Ryan have argued that motivation can be divided into two types – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when you do something just because you love it – for the sheer joy and satisfaction of the experience. Extrinsic motivation is when you do something for a reward that comes from someone or something else than yourself.

And while we wouldn't necessarily think of praise as an external reward, if brain chemistry's any indication, it's perceived as being closer to a tangible reward than we might initially consider. Praise then walks a fine-line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation. Research has shown that praise may increase adults' intrinsic motivation, but only if the praise is infrequent and genuine. Praise that is controlling or too frequent seems to become an external reward. And the problem with that is that external rewards are so emphemral, and inherently out of one's control, that those motivated by external rewards become more competitive and more image-driven.

For children, there seems to be some consensus that tangible rewards are destructive for children's intrinsic motivation. (All those read-a-book, get-a-pizza-party programs may be killing a generation's love of reading for pleasure.) But the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation seem less clear. Some of that has to do with the fact that so much of children's behavior is directed by parents and teachers – it's harder to parse out what actually a child wants to do and what he's doing because he's told to do so. Or that he was told to do something so frequently, that he's still echoing that earlier instruction.

But there are some studies that give clues as to the way recognition affects children's motivations. For example, in one study, the findings were actually an accident. Under the supervision of a researcher, children were given activities to do. The kids were having a good time playing, but then the researcher had to leave the room. When he returned, he discovered that the kids had stopped everything: they had just waited for his return. So the researcher left the room again. Again, the kids stopped everything – just waiting for him to come back. It wasn't a fluke. They changed the study, kept leaving the room, and realized the kids weren't playing because they enjoyed themselves – they were playing because they were getting attention.

Even those who haven't yet found praise to affect children's intrinsic motivation still look at the effect of praise on adults – the damage to motivation that can stem from too-frequent or praise as a means of control – and use this for a note of caution. They warn that recommendations calling for increased praise in educational settings are misguided and need to be reconsidered.

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Anonymous Tim Ludwig said...

I've just finished reading your article on praise and your two related blog entries. For me, the article was timely. I'm the father of a soon-to-be two year-old daughter and my wife and I have recently noticed that she's hit her "terrible two's" a bit on the early side. This change has brought on a great number of new parenting questions for us and part of my response has been to grab a bunch of books and start reading in an attempt to arm myself with new tools to effectively and productively handle my child's new behaviors.

Among my reading, two books have struck a chord: Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen and Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim Ginott. Both books have been around for some time and support the arguments that praise can be destructive and offering specific encouragement is a preferable way of helping children to become self-reliant and confident.

Philosophically, I agree, but I'm still struggling with the actual implementation of the concepts - maybe this would make a good article or book by itself: A Parents' Instruction Manual for Effective Praise and Encouragement?

In any case, this parenting stuff is hard work and I'm grateful that there are tools available to help us all along as we try to figure out our children and how best to help them.

Tim Ludwig
Connecting Families on the Go!

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in reference to mr. ludwig's post, is it possible that the terrible twos is happening at the same time your child is trying to develop spoken language? perhaps try signing so your child is less frustrated and can communicate with you?

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my family, as kids, I was the "smart one", the one every one expected to do well academically, and for a long time, I did. But then, I discovered "coasting". And I also hit a wall... if I couldn't do something right off the bat, it was very very hard for me to figure out how to work through it, because it wasn't something I was used to doing. And the work scared me. It wasn't until I went back to school, at age 37, and went into an illustration track that I learned *how* to learn. *How* to make the effort that resulted in accomplishing something. It changed my life. (Incidentally, my younger sister, the one who had to work and was "good with her hands", is now an LMSW and a college professor... and I still only have an associates.)

And so now, with my 8YO, who is also very bright, I see him beginning to hit that wall, and your article was right on time. It explained something I had begun to feel was true; that "smart kids" don't know/are afraid to "work", because to them, having to work at something so makes them less smart. I also see it happening with my 12YO niece, who is *extremely* bright.

The only thing I would have added to your article is that I don't think "praise" is the only culprit; I think that "smart kids" figure this out on their own, pretty quickly.

Great, great article. Thanks!

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your article so useful! In fact, I was recently struggling to articulate many of the same ideas to a friend. Now I can just send her your article to demonstrate what I was trying to say! I felt ungrateful to express ocnfusion and frustration at feeling let down by my "smart"-ness, so it was not something I talked about. But like the comments from the person above, I now have children who are being affected the same way and feel the need to take action. I hope I can help my "bright" children learn to take pride in hard work and the sense of achievement that comes with it, and to realize that being "smart" isn't everything.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

From Ash:

So, a couple days after I say "pizza for books is bad," I see this AP piece that some educators are saying pizza for books is really bad.;_ylt=Ao18Wrl_t6ZvXTvWuBVDsndH2ocA

7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This work is a shocker and an eye opener at the same time. Having been praised my whole life as a "smart one", only now I realised - my mother in a very direct way was praising herself.

Also, I never had to really learn how to persist at anything. it is either easy or not at all.

I grew up in Soviet Russia, but it my mom simply wanted to feel good about herself as a mother - as do many others here in the US.

Now, let us learn - for those who were praised for no apparrent reasons - how to learn to persist at things and find joy in work?
any ideas?

I used some of NLP techniques and Tony Robbins tricks.

again, thanks for the enlightening work!!

11:24 AM  

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