As an educational consultant, I’ve worked with parents in more schools than I can possibly count. I conduct presentations on how to nurture high-level development. I share insights, and I also pose questions.
The sessions are usually held in an auditorium, and they often go like this…
I ask, “How do you know if a child is intelligent?” Parents in the audience inevitably agree that intelligent kids learn quickly, with very few errors and little or no difficulty. Many parents feel that speed and ease are, in fact, proof of being smart. And, most parents praise their children for these attributes.
“What do you say to them?” I ask. And parents share some examples.
“Sammy, you learn things SO fast! I’m really proud of you!”
“Julie, you’re a math whiz. You never even make a mistake!”
“You’re a superstar, Ken. You don’t ask how to do things—you just get busy.”
These parents are very proud of their children’s abilities. However, they may not realize that praising children for being smart can compromise their motivation and performance, and actually be detrimental to their learning.
So, I suggest that they step back for a moment and consider two things: 1) the nature of intelligence, and 2) the nature of the praise they convey.
“What is intelligence?” I ask. Many parents are surprised to learn that it’s not fixed at birth. It develops step by step over time with hard work and the right kinds of learning opportunities. It demands perseverance, inquiry, and a willingness to learn from setbacks. It involves patience, preparedness, and practice, as well as thoughtful attention to detail. In other words, intelligence accrues with effort.
Intelligence is far more vibrant and dynamic than most people might suspect, and current research tells us that there are many ways of being intelligent beyond traditional school-based academics. Indeed, each person has an individual profile of intelligences, including intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and behavioral.
About Praising Intelligence
“So, how do you think parents can foster children’s intelligence?” I ask. At that point there’s usually quiet in the auditorium, as everyone thinks of what they can—or should—do.
I assure them that it’s really not that complicated. If parents think about intelligence as a process (rather than as an innate essence of some sort), it paves the way for celebrating kids’ accomplishments in ways that go beyond just “being proud.”
I offer a few recommendations. Pay attention to what a child is doing—and how she’s doing it. Hard work, not speed, is what leads to increasing competence. When parents use words like “whiz” or “superstar” they’re suggesting an aura of brilliance, and aren’t really helping her progress. Be specific with praise by reinforcing persistence, and indicating ways of moving forward, tackling the next step in her experience and understanding. How? Encourage the child to think about options, learning strategies, and interests. Reassure her that she can confront challenges, stretch her boundaries, and know that she’ll still garner positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support.
Tying it All Together
At this point in the presentation I usually return to those sample words of praise, and ask, “How can we rephrase the comments so they’re more facilitative of children’s growth?”
“Sammy, you learn quickly—which means you’ve got time to explore something else you’d like to know about. Any ideas?”
“Your math work is very precise, Julie! Why not try something a little harder? And, if you make a mistake that’s okay because then you’ll know what you need to work on.”
“Great initiative, Ken. Now that you’ve started, what questions can you think of to help you extend your thinking?”
These comments are encouraging—and they solicit the children’s investment in the learning process, allowing them to think constructively about what they’re doing, and how to take next steps.
As the session winds up, I like to discuss the importance of parents’ roles in helping to shape children’s attitudes, work habits, learning trajectories, and resilience. As kids play, learn, and experience the fullness of life, parents can praise their efforts, and help them embrace the ups—and downs—of childhood. All of this will enable them to develop a solid foundation for instruction and disciplined practice—which can lead to proficiency, self-confidence, and a life-long love of learning.
And that’s really something to be proud of!
For more information see Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster (Anansi Press, 2014)
Visit the authors’ website at http://www.beyondintelligence.net for articles and resources.
For a recent blog on controversies about intelligence, IQ, and children’s education go to http://houseofanansipress.wordpress.com/2014/08/12/controversies-about-intelligence-iq-and-childrens-education-guest-post-by-dona-matthews-phd-and-joanne-foster-edd/