To Raise Smart and Successful Children, Focus on Developing a Work Ethic
In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s most enduring short stories, Harrison Bergeron, everyone is finally equal thanks to the efforts of the Handicapper General. However, one of the many lasting messages of the story is a derisive one. In the futuristic world of Harrison Bergeron, accomplishment is no longer the measure of stature. Instead, it is all about trying, of recognizing effort, regardless of result.
However, a recent summary of three decades of research reveals that when it comes to raising smart children, developing their work ethic is in fact the most critical component. Whether it is success in school or in life, research indicates that innate intelligence and ability are simply not as important as a person’s level of effort.
Secrets to Raising Smart Children
In “The Secrets to Raising Smart Children,” Carol S. Dweck summarizes more than 30 years of research into what makes children successful. Surprisingly, one of the first things she notes contradicts a common parental practice today.
Zweck insists that praising children’s innate abilities serves only to reinforce an overemphasis on intellect and talent. According to Zweck, such a viewpoint “leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.” The researcher refers to this group as having a “fixed mind-set.”
Instead of praising raw ability, the focus with children should be on a “growth mind-set.” According to Zweck, developing such a viewpoint is critical to helping youngsters react well to setbacks. Children with a “growth mind-set” simply do not experience the crippling feeling of helplessness that can come with perceived failure.
View of Intelligence
Critics may deem Zweck as being too simplistic in her differentiation, but she continues on with the basic division. Those with the ‘fixed mind-set” are prone to feelings of helplessness more often than not.
This group tends to “believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that.” She notes that “mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change.”
Because of that mentality, the “fixed mind-set” group tends to avoid challenges. At times, this group tended to regard having to work hard to accomplish a task as a sign that one simply did not have the innate ability to do the task.
On the other hand, those who develop a “mastery-orientation” to learning “think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work.” Mastery-oriented children “want to learn above all else.”
Zweck explains the actions of those with the growth mind-set this way: “Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn.”
Where the biggest impact occurs is at the point when school work becomes more challenging. As students progressed through middle school and into the challenge of high school, those with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence when tasks became more challenging.
Need to Praise the Proper Things
Zweck’s research indicates that “intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort.” The researcher noted that those children congratulated for their intelligence actually tended to shy away from challenging assignments seeking easy ones instead.
On the flip side, those kids applauded for their efforts sought greater challenges noting that in such situations they would learn even more. Those students praised for their efforts remained confident when faced with the harder questions, even when such questions were beyond their ability.
In fact, one of the more interesting findings was the performance of the two groups of students directly after having been given an extremely challenging task. Those praised for intelligence tended to perform poorly even when easy tasks followed a hard task that had been beyond their ability.
Advice for Parents
At no time in the piece do we hear one of the more important descriptors of growth mind-set children. Clearly what Zweck is describing is a sense of resilience.
The ability to bounce back from setbacks is a discerning trait for children and adults that succeed even when great challenges come their way. It appears to be a learned trait and youth sports offer a great chance for adults to help children foster a greater sense of resiliency. In the athletic arena, youth coaches help children immensely when they focus on effort instead of results.
Zweck notes that children “differ in intelligence, talent and ability.” Where parents come in is to foster the work habits and sense of effort that maximize that innate ability.
Of particular importance is to ensure that our youngsters understand that “great accomplishment, and even what we call genius, is typically the result of years of passion and dedication and not something that flows naturally from a gift.”
Zweck notes that informing children of the accomplishments of the likes of Mozart, Edison, Curie, Darwin and Cézanne should be utilized with children. These individuals “were not simply born with talent; they cultivated it through tremendous and sustained effort.”
Ultimately, hard work and discipline contribute more to school success than IQ or innate ability. Such a statement is true for success in life as well.
If parents focus on praise in the correct arena, they can go a long way towards “raising smart kids.”