Damn them with faint praise

I couldn’t help being fascinated by the New York Times article about praising your kids. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my schooling lately (not just because the question of sex ed at school got raised recently…) Perhaps it’s because I’m already nervous about sending my darling precious daughter to school.

One girl I know was told from a very early age that she was gifted. She refused to admit she ever got anything wrong. I remember her telling me when we were 14 years old: “Don’t ever admit that you don’t know anything!” She was shocked that I expressed ignorance about a topic. As I tell my students in my class, one should never ever feel guilty about asking a question if one does not understand. In fact, it’s the intelligent thing to do – to seek clarification, and to be open to learning new things! She still never admits it when she gets things wrong. And she is a very lonely, unhappy person to this day: she has alienated so many people.

I’ve written a post on feeling guilty, in which I expressed some doubts about labelling a child as “gifted”, no matter how gifted they may be. It seems that this doubt was justified.

I suppose my own views on this matter come from being labelled as “gifted”, not by my parents, but by my Australian high school. What did it do for my self esteem? S.F.A. What did it do for my results at school? I seem to recall that I actually did worse the semester after I was labelled as “gifted”. The best thing for me was to go to the UK, and to find out that I had to work bloody hard to keep my head above water and achieve results.

Doing “well” in an exam when I was doing O-Levels and A-Levels meant getting 60% – 70%. One did not always succeed. There were many answers one got wrong. And one only exceeded by working extremely hard. Before, I had been used to getting great results in tests without studying. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever had to study before. I was motivated by a sense of pride (How dare they think Australians are inferior?) and I pushed myself hard. For the first time in my life, I really worked, and it paid off.

I don’t like this modern tendency to try to “eliminate” failure. I seem to recall that when the VCE was introduced in this State, my mother received a bulletin saying “The concept of failure has been abolished.” Well, that’s stupid. Because real life isn’t like that. The fact is that some people are better at things than others. Full stop. It really gives me the irrits, particularly as this mindset doesn’t extend towards sport in the Australian schooling system. So one can be humiliated in all sorts of ways because of one’s sporting ineptitude, but woe betide anyone who says that maybe little Betty can spell “acrobat” and little Bill cannot. (You can guess from this that I was always one of the people who was left until last when teams were chosen at school. In primary school, only myself, the two overweight girls and the girl with the mental age of 7 were the only four people in our year not chosen for a netball team.) I’m never going to be a sporting genius. I’ve dealt with it. However, I now know that I can play and enjoy sport (with some effort and practice). Before I became a mother, I was in a soccer team and enjoyed it immensely. We even won some tournaments, to my immense pride and delight.

So, I won’t be telling my daughter that she’s “gifted” or “intelligent”, although I do think she’s a fabulous, clever and lovely little critter. I will tell her that I love her heaps, just for being her: in fact, I already do so repeatedly. But, after reading that article, I will feel justified in treating her like an ordinary human being, just as my parents treated my sister and I. The truth of the matter is, that to achieve results, one has to work hard and do “boring” stuff. It seems to be unpopular these days to emphasise this. Everything has to be “interesting” and palatable for easily-bored students. But once you get out into the real world, there’s lots of boring stuff. Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean that you can escape this: in fact, it may mean you resign yourself to a life of boring stuff (discovery, due diligence etc). And one is constantly judged in the real world – who gets pay rises, who doesn’t etc. The best way of preparing children for the real world is to let them know that life isn’t always interesting, and native intelligence or talent alone does not get you anywhere without practice and hard work.

But when you do work hard and do well, it is immensely satisfying. And for me, at least, the world is an infinitely interesting place.

(Via Backwards City and Crikey)



Filed under education, Guilt, motherhood, soccer, society

7 responses to “Damn them with faint praise

  1. Lorana

    very interesting article in the NY – thanks LE. I’m obviously going to have to think hard about how I praise my daughter, as I currently often tell her how clever she is. Clearly commending her persistence or effort is more important. And the stuff about kids who are told they are smart not wanting to admit to failure or even having to exert themselves definitely rang true for me. I have given up far too many things because I wasn’t good at them! Admitting I am not great at everything has always been a challenge for me…

  2. Paul

    Interesting topic. There is actually a lot of academic work around on the very large problem of under-identification of gifted students. One issue with not emphasising that ‘giftedness’ is a good thing, and an unusual thing, is that children may be inclined to hide it, or parents and teachers may either not identify it, or under-emphasise it and as such fail to accelerate such children during their crucial developmental years.

    Perhaps a healthy middle ground is the best option – if a child is gifted, do acknowledge it but perhaps also drive home that this actually raises the expectations on them, rather than allowing them to do substantially less work for the same results as other students. Additionally, I don’t see that it is neccessarily harmful to acknowledge the reality that a child is above average, and indeed to explain that this may even create hostility and resentment amongst peers – this might equip him or her to deal with the almost inevitable problems at school rather than having to deal with unexplained persecution.

    You also place a premium on hard work, which is generally pretty admirable – but I must say I have always thought that the students who really missed some of the best aspects of the experience at school and uni were the ones who worked like demons thoughout. Even if they cracked straight As or HDs, they frequently seemed under-socialised, apolitical, and lacking in exposure to contemporary culture – and my observation is that many struggle once they hit the workforce, too. So although it’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but I suggest one should be wary of creating too strong an emphasis on working hard. I guess what I’m saying is that arguably it’s far healthier for a smart kid to occasionally ride on their natural ability and enjoy the slack time this affords them to do other things (but maybe that’s just because that was my own approach…).

  3. Lorana

    in response to Paul, I am intrigued by his perception that there is an UNDERidentification of gifted. I thought these days pretty much everyone was considered to be G&T – I recently read in The Age that everyone with an IQ above 115 is regarded as such, which is only one SD above the mean and would therefore capture 16% of the population which I think is a bit broad.

  4. Paul

    Underidentification of gifted students is a big problem, believe it or not. It is particularly pronounced in certain demographic groups, for instance, children from non-English speaking backgrounds, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and so on.

    ‘Gifted’ is a complex notion, and IQ is only one measure of it – and not one which is generally regarded as decisive any more. Children might be very talented at music or art but only register a mediocre score on an IQ test, and in fact this is one of the major issues – many tests designed to identify ‘bright’ students only weed out (for example) those good at the maths-science type subjects, which require thinking skills similar to those tested by an IQ-type test. Or, for instance, kids with asian heritage might underperform in a test that is culturally biased (unintentionally, usually) in favour of an anglo-saxon Australian perspective.

    But I agree that the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality is b.s. – have you ever noticed that Australia is almost unique in the western world for not really having any of what are usually called ‘intellectuals’?

  5. Jennifer

    I found that a very interesting article. And an interesting take on it, too.

    I had already been trying to give my children specific praise (good on you for figuring out how to add those two numbers, rather than you’re so clever) but since I’ve read it I’ve been trying to praise effort, and it’s quite difficult.

    I look back on my own education, and realise now that because I knew I was supposed to be smart, there were a few things I wouldn’t try for fear of failure – learning chess was a notable one.

    So I think the most important thing with gifted kids’ education is to give them something they find hard to do early enough so that they get used to the idea that not everything is easy. Don’t know if that would have worked with your schoolfriend, though.

  6. Legal Eagle

    Interesting line of comments! I haven’t had time to read and respond because I’ve been “PhD-ing” over the last few days.

    Funnily enough, my friend doesn’t drive. I suspect that because she didn’t immediately “get the hang of” driving, she never bothered to learn. And she hates to fail. I don’t particularly like failing either, but I’ve had to learn to deal with it.

    In retrospect, it’s probably fortunate that I am a total klutz and wasn’t good at sport; at least I know how it feels to be terrible at something.

    What is the problem if a gifted child is not identified? I presume it’s a problem of the child being “bored” at school, and acting up as a consequence… Being a teacher is a hard job when you have a very broad spectrum of students – I guess there are 10% who always “get it”, 10% who will have great difficulty “getting it” and then the other 80% of students are in between. The problem is if you are focusing on making sure everyone understands, the bright students who immediately understood the point will become frustrated. It isn’t good if a child has absolutely nothing to do at school because they learn very quickly.

    I used to be very much against streaming, then I went into a selective school (in the UK)…and very much enjoyed it. Perhaps there is something to be said for separating out people with different abilities.

    However, some boredom is a natural part of life. I must confess that in some instances, I think “giftedness” is an excuse parents use to explain a badly behaved child – “He’s very gifted, but he’s just not being challenged, which is why he behaves badly in class.” I tend to think that if a child is gifted and imaginative enough, she will be able to create challenges for herself to a degree.

    At one point my mother worked in a children’s toy store. Every parent came in and said “My child is very gifted for his/her age”. Mum used to smile inwardly the more she heard this. Not all children can be gifted. Not all people can be gifted.

    There is no shame in being ordinary. I am a very ordinary women’s soccer player, but I am very proud of my achievements in that field because I worked really hard to get there, and had to overcome a childhood disability. Previously, I was very proud and did not like to do anything where I couldn’t be “the best”. I was certainly afraid of failure.

    I failed to get Articles first time around. Although it was a disaster at the time, it caused me to totally reassess my life and to go down pathways that were very different. I can safely say that I would not be sitting here typing this post today if I had gotten Articles straight away. Further, I would not have met my husband, I would not have had my child and I would probably be slaving my guts away at one of the mega-firms, thinking that this was “success”. So failure can actually be an immensely productive thing…I’ve written a post on “The Horse Story” which shows that you should always “wait and see…” Failure is not necessarily a bad thing.

    It’s hard, though, when you have your own child. If my child wants to do something well and to push herself, I will help her do that. But I don’t want her being afraid of failure, and I want her to know that I don’t mind if she’s “ordinary” (or for that matter, if she’s a “genius”). As far as I’m concerned, she’s exceptional for just being her.

  7. Pingback: The little engine that could... « The Legal Soapbox

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