It Could be Your Fault That Your Son is Stupid
Recently, I met-up with a friend who has a five year-old son. Throughout the coffee session, she told me how her son was “stupid”, “slow” and “will probably end up taking all the foundation subjects in primary school” in front of the child! At one point, she turned to her son and said to him, “Too bad you didn’t inherit your father’s smart genes. You will have a tough time growing up if you keep learning so slowly.”
I was appalled by the negativity. I am never an advocate of pessimism. I like to be surrounded by positive energy and believe this self-fulfilling prophecy is self-defeating. I am not a fan of people who tell me they can’t complete a task even before trying.
A self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a belief turning into reality because we are behaving like it’s true. It is important for us to have trust in our children. It is just as crucial for us to educate our children to be optimistic. We should mould them into adults who would believe in themselves and not someone who gives up before even trying.
You are a mirror to your children
You create their self-image, according to Dorothy Briggs in her book “Your Child’s Self Esteem”. Since you are the person they trust the most, your child will believe you wholeheartedly if you tell him he can’t make it in life or that he’s incapable and stupid. Only when he’s older, would he challenge what you say. But the damage is already done.
Similarly, if you keep telling your child he’s great and has abilities, he would believe that and outperform his counterparts. That’s how important your role is. You should be encouraging and always believe in him. I am not asking you to overdo the praises. That would result in a child with a bloated ego or a delusion of grandeur. Just have faith in the child and don’t be a wet blanket all the time.
Researchers at Iowa State University did a study in 2006 with 115 parents and their seventh grade children. The parents answered questions on how much they think their children drink and their children filled in a survey at the start of the experiment about their recent consumption of alcohol. A year later, the children did another survey to state their recent alcohol intake. The results showed that if both parents had overestimated their children’s use of alcohol at the start, their child would end up drinking more, even if they didn’t initially.
As seen from the experiment, don’t doubt your children from the start. That would propel him to conform to your expectations. Always have confidence in your children and believe they are capable of excellence. Tel them to aim higher than what they can achieve. That’s what I always tell my son.
Imagine this: I am on a treadmill. I aim to run 2km. I may stop and walk when I reach 1.6km. If I had aimed for 3km, I may have run continuously for 2.6km before stopping.
In the same vein, if you aim for 60 marks for the exams, you may work hard and eventually just get 55. If your goal is 90, even if you get 70 in the end, it’s higher than the 60 marks you initially wanted.
My friend’s son may really be slower than his peers. With my friend’s constant reminder that he is incapable of excelling, he will not perform his full potential. He won’t try his hardest, thinking it wouldn’t matter with his “stupidity.” If my friend had constantly encouraged him, he would have the confidence to overcome all odds.
As Paulo Coelho said in the Alchemist, it is precisely the possibility of realizing a dream that makes life interesting. Motivate your children to always reach for the moon, because even if you miss, you land among the stars.
Praising effort is better than praising ability
According to Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s research in 1998, praising ability or intelligence can have a negative impact on a child’s motivation.
Praises such as “You’re a natural artist,” “You must be very smart” or “You’ve got the clever genes” focus on inherent talent. Children praised this way are more likely to view that ability is innate. They are less likely to try hard, since a challenge is either doable easily, or cannot be done. They are also less likely to take up challenges, since failure would mean they are not “smart”.
This results in a fixed mindset, according to Dwek in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. A fixed mindset is one where we think we can do something only because of our innate ability, while a growth mindset is one where we believe a person can do anything if he puts his heart to it, the Stanford professor of psychology said in her book.
People with fixed mindsets have the need to look smart. Since success or failure is so tightly tied to their identity, they tend to develop an irrational fear of failure and take fewer risks. Children with fixed mindsets may do well in previous exams, but then lack the courage and motivation to try the harder questions, which will eventually hamper their development.
People with growth mindsets believe that success is a result of effort rather than just raw talent. So, these people work hard to constantly grow and improve. Failures are taken well, because they understand that it is inevitable with any endeavour. Setbacks are treated as learning opportunities. Since success and failure are seen as separate from their identities, people with the growth mindset tend to embrace challenges.
I have seen people who haven’t done well in their childhood become very successful professionals or businessmen because they have growth mindsets. Thomas Edison who was labelled dumb by his school teachers, went on to be the world’s greatest inventors and founded General Electric. Closer to home, Benny Se Teo was a former convict who went on to start a chain of five restaurants.
Another example can be seen in class. Children with fixed mindsets tend not to ask questions. They nod along, pretending to understand the material for fear of looking dumb. Children with growth mindsets, on the other hand, do not hesitate to ask when they don’t understand. Sometimes they are not even aware how smart or dumb asking the question makes them look.
This is why I believe praise should be based on effort and the process. Research suggests the following three ways to be most effective in enhancing a flexible mindset for our children.
1. Praise the effort, not the talent. Focus on the process, not the child. When your child does well in an exam, by all means, show that you’re happy and acknowledge the achievements, but avoid using phrases such as “you’re so smart.”
Instead, say something more descriptive like “You’ve studied really hard for this and I’m happy you did well!” If the attempt was a failure (like a really bad painting), instead of saying “You don’t have the talent for this” give suggestions on improvements, such as “That was a good effort. Perhaps we can study how other painters paint faces?”
2. Be specific. When your kid builds a really good paper plane, don’t just say, “Wow, nice plane.” You can make observations on how your kid was carefully folding the paper, how precise the folds are, how sharp he made the angles and even how the plane is balanced in flight. The specific feedback not only tells the kid that you appreciate the thought that went into the plane, but also that it’s not just the end result that matters.
3. Be genuine. False praise is damaging. Kids know when you’re sincere. They may think you feel sorry for them or that you’re trying to manipulate them. So avoid frequent and effusive praise. Similarly, don’t praise low-challenge activities, failures or mistakes. It’s much better to point out where the mistakes are or how they can improve on their failures.