A few summers ago, back during my crazy college days, my friend Jackie stopped by my room to visit and catch up. She had been at UC Berkeley for the past couple months doing research in some sort of biology or neuroscience or history of science. Whatever it was, we didn’t talk about it. Rather, we reminisced about, of all things, a moment in her high school Spanish class.
She and her classmates were trying out the present subjunctive — Jackie and I didn’t attend the same high school; she went to Commonwealth, near Berklee School of Music. The laid-back, do-as-you-please music mantra infects that whole area in Boston pretty deeply. And from what I can tell, Commonwealth runs its school accordingly. I liked the semblance of order and underprivilege at my school. Still I can’t help but wonder how a school like hers would’ve affected me. — The task at hand: to explain to the class “Why my parents are pleased with me.” Now, I can tell you that this is a bad classroom exercise for a number of reasons. Chances are you can think of a few yourself, so I’ll spare us both the repetition. What’s worth noting, though, are the responses. By some stroke of bad luck for her, and convenience for my story, Jackie had to go first.
“My parents are pleased that I do my best,” she said confidently. That’s normal. My parents told me the same thing. Try your hardest and no more. That’s all you can do, that’s the best you can do. It’d hadn’t occured to me that anyone would respond differently.
But everyone else gave the same, different response. Their parents, they said, would be pleased so long as their kids were happy. Curious. It seemed that all the other parents were concerned explicitly with their child’s emotional welfare. Maybe our parents could take lessons from them. Research on motivation theory and praise from the 1980s until now suggests otherwise.
It’s an unwritten rule that harsh critism is somehow damaging to a child’s self-image. And we’ve long assumed that positive praise helps to construct a positive sense of self-worth. It turns out, however, that this is simply untrue.
Direct, personal validation after a success — something as simple and harmless as, “I’m so proud of you.” — can hinder a child’s performance. Yes, I know. It sounds outrageous. But it’s not. Such praise encourages the child, or anyone really, so long as he continues to succeed. As soon as the child meets with perceived failure, he’s likely to seize, much like a deer in headlights. Children how are overly praised in this fashion will eschew situations that they feel will cause them to look less than smart.
Growing up I had a friend, for anonymity’s sake, let’s call him Al. This guy is the single most selfish, irresponsible, horrible human being I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Really. There’s a good chance the “Does not play well with others” report card comment was first written for him. I mean this kid was bad, with a capital B. What makes him so insufferable, I think, was the way his parents treated him. No matter what Al got whatever he wanted. The cost, the time, the impracticality of it never figured in. And when they weren’t spoiling him with material goods, honeyed words in his honor flowed from their mouths. “What a good boy.” “You’re the best.” “I couldn’t be prouder.”
And so Al needed to be the best. We’d played — yes I publical confess that we gather around a few time a week to play — Dungeons and Dragons. At the start of each new campaign we’d have to make new characters: figure out their race, alignment, skills, etc. At the beginning everyone is weak. It’s another one of those unwritten rules. You start out small and work your way big. Al hates this rule. He wants to be the biggest, the best from the start through the finish. He made such a fuss that we let him be the highest he could be in all the initial stats. The trick, though, he had to be human. So he was the best at being the worst. You see, unlike the other races, like elves or pseudo-dragons — I was two pseudo-dragons. Like their name suggests, they’re not dragons but magical, flying lizards no bigger than a cat. They have scales and a poison-tipped tail. We chose these two characters for me instead of one because they’re not especially powerful. However, when Al tried to sell me to a travelling circus I stung him in defense, sending him into a permanent coma. Pseudo-dragons can communicate to their master and no one else, and then, only through telepathy. I’d frequently fall asleep during gameplay. Then Bob, my owner, could play for me without his raising a ruckus.— the “normal” human can’t level up. He’s stuck with whatever he starts out with, including his health. As the game went on, everyone else in the group received more hit points, and therefore could fight the bigger, scarier enemies, as they gained more experience. Al didn’t. Not long into the game Al would die after one attack from a monster. He could no longer play. And that made him mad. He forced us to stop the game prematurely. No one could mention D&D in Al’s company for weeks without a fight.
In the face of failure, Al turned mean. It contradicted his parents praise, which he heard over and over and over again. It was impossible, even for his friends to escape it. When presented with a situation that might prove that he was not the best, Al became helpless. And this is the technical term, too, helpless. He couldn’t form strategies. He didn’t persevere. He gave up, picked up his ball, and went home. Sometimes, literally. Al is not alone. In fact, a little under half the population responds to difficulty in this way.
Once, after a long break from volleyball, Al took the longest to get back into the swing of things. He’d accompany each missed shot with an unprompted denigration of his ability, that is, with an excuse, “I was never good at spikes anyway.” Sometimes he spontaneously divert attention from whatever he thought to be a failure to one of his successes. After a failed dig, he might remind us, “I can land a somersault on my feet on the trampoline.” He’s parents had spoiled him with their praise, really. Their constant, personal validation had planted a deep-seated vulnerability and fear in him.
But only about half the population react helplessly. The other half answer in the face of difficulty with what psychologists call a mastery-oriented response. These kids see what other might call a failure as a chance to learn. I don’t mind telling you about the countless hours DJ and I spent playing that invidious video game Soul Caliber on his Sega Dreamcast. He’d play as Taki, a particularlyl pneumatic female ninja who fought with double ninjatos. I’d always choose Kilik, an orphan raised by temple elders and general badass with a bo staff.
After coming home from cross country practice around 4pm, DJ and I would play, regularly, until three, four, five, even six the following morning in a blood brawl, one-on-one in the games versus mode. We choose Misturugi’s alternative level, the one on the floating wooden platform in the middle of a lake during a winter battle in the mountains of Japan. Something about this particular stage we found soothing. One night we played for 278 rounds straight. Needless to say, we grew accustomed to each other’s fighting style. To this day, it is unwise for anyone — except for me, of course — to oppose DJ as Kilik.
Every once in a while a round would end in a tie, but inevitibly someone lost. If DJ lost, he might answer with a menacing though inviting, “Bring it on. Play harder.” Defeat only presented him another chance to get better. He stopped, analysed, and revised his strategy. Learning theoriest call such behavior metacognitive. And it’s exactly the sort of response educators, or at least educational literature, try to instill in their students.
People who display a mastery-oriented response to obstacles often blurt out self-directed motivating comments, things like, “I can do this.” And they’ll reason through the situation and adjust their action dynamically. DJ’s video game habbits exemplify the mastery-oriented learner: “How is he beating me?”
The tricky and interesting thing about praise and response is this: how a person reacts to an obstacle establishes that person’s contigent self-worth. Kids who feel they’ve somehow let their caretakers down by failing actually think that they themselves are failures. Children think that a bad kid always does poorly on tests at school. And, conversely, if a kid does poorly on tests at school, he must be a bad kid. And failures are somehow stickier than successes.
In one study, children in the fifth and sixth grades were separated into two groups of equal abililty (based on standardized tests) to perform a few tasks. Children prone to give the helpless response were in one; children likely to show a mastery-oriented response to the tests in the other. The first eight problems were designed so that all the children could successfully complete them. They were followed by four more problems that designed to lie beyond the students’ abilities. When asked, students in the helpless group reported only successfully completing between three and four of the problems on average, whereas the mastery-oriented group accurately recalled finishing eight of the problems correctly — twice the amount they were unable to complete. The first group were swamped by their failure to the exclusion of their successes.
But there is hope. The helplessness and mastery-orientedness aren’t hardwired. It is possible to elicit a mastery-oriented reponse through praise. And here’s the connection: praise which focuses on a child’s strategy and effort and not on the child himself can produce a mastery-oriented response to hardship.
So, it seems Jackie’s and my parents had it right. Their praise expectations have more complicated results. It inspired a desire for learning, persistence, greater self-worth, and self-directed motivation. Praise centered about strategy and effort tells a child that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes. At least it doesn’t preclude it. It takes the pressure off of outward appearence. Such praise allows a child to look vulnerable, to ask questions, to make mistakes. The Bible got it right, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But it missed, “Praise the work, encourage the worker.”
In retrospect, I should thank my parents, and I do — Hi, mom! — for wanting me to try hard rather than be happy. Thank goodness my parents weren’t hippies like those other parents at Commonwealth. I’m happier for it.
[If you want to read more about this sort of thing, check out Self-Theories by Carol Dweck. It’s a collection of essays on personality development and motivation written for teachers and moms and the lazy psychologist.]