Thursday, 10 February 2011

Stop praising your kids!

Praising our kids isn't actually helping them achieve more or have better self-esteem. In fact it's quite the opposite. Psychologist Carol Dweck's research shows that when we tell our kids they're smart, they become preoccupied with maintaining this reputation and avoid anything they might not be good at right away. They refuse to put in an effort because that proves they're not so smart after all. Their self-esteem actually lowers as soon as they encounter something that is difficult, because they think they've reached the limit of how smart they are.
On the other hand, when kids are praised for the effort they make, or are given specific praise, they learn that making an effort pays off. They learn that they can do well at any task because they can put in an effort and become better, even if they don't do well on the first try. It's even important not to praise all the time, to avoid turning them into praise-junkies and letting them experience that persistence pays off in the end. A valuable lesson is that brains are like any other muscle and when you exercise them, you make yourself smarter.

Gamers exercise their brains all the time, solving puzzles, making decisions, learning new skills. Games are not easy, and they are not instantly rewarding. You only unlock the achievement if you actually complete the task. You don't get anything for trying, or for 'being' smart enough. And yet millions of gaming children are perfectly happy to persist, even in the face of repeated failure, without receiving praise or encouragement along the way.

Oddly enough, these same children will often, in spite of being told how 'smart' they are, not feel the same way about routine school tasks they are expected to perform in real life. They are good at games but believe they are 'bad at life'. In real life, they are often praised and rewarded without making a genuine effort and without actually achieving anything. This is supposed to increase their self-esteem, but it just teaches them that real-world praise is meaningless and doesn't reflect on their actual capabilities. Not to mention that often their actual skills and achievements in the virtual world will be criticized and derided as a worthless waste of time. So in the real world their true achievements are talked down, and qualities they know don't have, are praised indiscriminately. No wonder they prefer games to school: they make more sense.

In Dweck's research, children who were specifically praised for effort, chose a difficult puzzle they were told they would learn from over a simple puzzle that would give them a high score. This resonates in gaming as well. People often believe children prefer gaming over school because it is 'easy' and 'instantly rewarding' and in a misguided effort to make school more like games, they make it easier and lavish on the praise. There are indeed plenty of rewards in games, but they are specific and are for successes. Points are awarded for doing things and the more you do them, or the better you get at them, the more points you get. There is no reward just for taking part in the game. You're in a constant proces of winning... but you don't want to win the whole game right away because then the fun stops.

Similarly, in Dweck's experiment, the children who valued effort named the most difficult puzzle they were given their favourite, even when they failed to solve it. They enjoyed the experience of trying different solutions and persisted in the belief that a solution was achievable. They were winning by unlocking new skills and new ideas, even though they didn't score well. They knew they could continue to play later in life.

If we want to save the world by gaming, we must try to make real life more like games. Not by heaping on plenty of instant rewards just for putting in an appearance, but by making achievements matter. My kids often feel that their schoolwork is too hard. They get angry and frustrated and want to give up, believing that they just can't do it, so why try?

My son is a gamer and all I have to do to get him to persist, is remind him that when he's gaming, he often has to persist and try multiple times before finally unlocking the puzzle or defeating the boss. I remind him that, just like his games, his school work is designed to be achievable by someone at his level, but it will take effort. I remind him that when he finally does achieve his objective, he will enjoy the reward even more because he worked so hard to get it. Without games, I would have no such analogy to present to him. Without games, he wouldn't have developed a habit of persistence.

I see a distinct difference when I try to convince my daughter of the same principles. She is not a gamer, and she is, despite being clever and not suffering from ADHD, more likely to lose interest and give up when things are hard. Just like the 'smart' kids in Dweck's research, she is more likely to lie, cheat, or choose the easy option, rather than make an effort. I hope I can soon find a game that catches her fancy, because I want to increase the time she spends gaming, otherwise her schoolwork is going to suffer.

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