Don’t Praise Your Daughter for Being Intelligent

… or your son, for that matter.

When I was a kid, my parents and teachers used to say I was smart. “You’ll win a Nobel prize one day”. “You’re so smart there is no way you’d fail at any subject”. Well, I’m 25 and I failed at lots of things. And paradoxically, failure was a step in the right direction.

In the recent years, I’ve found several psychology articles confirming my feelings – praising a kid’s raw IQ can be very harmful. The kid learns to value what you praise. If you praise talent, they will value their talent. If you tell them they are so smart, they will have that as a part of their core identity. If you teach them their qualities are innate, they will think they are innate. A talented smart person has it easy in school. If school is hard and there are challenges, a person is not smart. That’s for average kids.

So what do you think will happen when they reach a schooling level where they can no longer breeze through the material and still get good grades?

“Kids who were praised for their intelligence tended to avoid challenges. Instead, they preferred easy tasks. They were also more interested in their competitive standing–how they measured up relative to others–than they were in learning how to improve their future performance.

By contrast, kids who were praised for their effort showed the opposite trend. They preferred tasks that were challenging– tasks they would learn from. “

That’s right, they might have an identity crisis. Or try to preserve their “bright student” identity and public image by giving up hard tasks and only doing easier ones. Or else where will they get their praise, if appearing innately intelligent is getting harder and harder?

The result: an insecure, ego-preserving, image-preserving adult with a badly developed mind compared to their lower IQ classmates. At worst. But most likely, the kid will fail a few times, realize how stupid this mindset is, and drop it in order to adopt an effort-based one. In any case, the kid will have to fail some.

I was never one of the best in my class, but I was very near. I had easier time learning than most kids, but there were always a few genius kids who had it even easier. I used to envy them, because it was pretty obvious they had naturally higher IQs. Now, however, I feel grateful for what I have, and wonder if their hardships were even worse than mine. Did they feel shocked when they entered a hard major in college and it no longer felt easy to get straight As? I know it was hard for me, and took several years of university to start using good studying techniques and get my first A. It didn’t help that I still suffered from perfectionism and often spent time on details I should have ignored in favor of more important things.

I can’t totally blame my parents or teachers. Even if they praised me for effort only, I was still predisposed to perfectionism and could get stuck in a rut. Despite their mistakes, my parents did a great job. I’m still a fairly good student, and got two science degrees. Lets just say I could have done better if things were a bit different.

However, I have cured about 70% of my perfectionism and got rid of the toxic mindset brought on by praising intelligence. Things aren’t bad, and I’m proud of my effort and achievement in the areas where I was naturally weak. I sometimes sit and regret I couldn’t fix more of this sooner, but past can’t be changed, and I can only look forward, towards more self-improvement. Failure is just the death of my old, toxic mindset, not a tragedy. The world is full of possibilities.

Is this a female problem?

I never thought it was a girl-specific problem, as I have seen some guys admit they fell into the same trap. But some say  girls are more often praised for smarts, and boys for effort:

“She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel. In fact, the straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.”

“Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.”

I can relate to the way girls are praised. But are boys really praised for effort? The article is kind of feministy, insisting that women are less accomplished in careers simply because of different praising patterns.

“Even if every external disadvantage to a woman’s rising to the top of an organization is removed–every inequality of opportunity, every chauvinistic stereotype, all the challenges we face balancing work and family–we would still have to deal with the fact that through our mistaken beliefs about our abilities, we may be our own worst enemy.”

Natural risk-aversion and less motivation for leadership have just as much to do with fewer women being at the top. However, if girls are praised for smarts more, it’s probably a factor.

Matt Forney implies Western women get too much praise, and are told they are smart. He talks about a girl who was arguing with him on twitter:

“I initially ignored her, but when she continued to harass me, touting her “4.0 GPA” and how smart she was, I clicked through to her profile and did a little research. Turns out that this oh-so-intelligent young lady was spending $58,000 a year to major in acting. Furthermore, while she was not unattractive—she had a good bone structure, a cute face and huge… tracts of land—she was at least twenty pounds overweight, so several of my followers started calling her fat. What was her response?

She started sending pictures of herself to me in an attempt to prove she wasn’t fat.”

Knowing what I know, I wonder if such arrogance is false. When someone is so personally touched by the words of a stranger on the internet, are they actually confident? Is it really an overabundance of self-esteem she has, or is it an attempt to appear smart, because she knows picking a harder major would ruin it? I don’t know about this girl individually, but who knows. Maybe Matt Forney’s arrogant intelligent girls with high self-esteem are actually insecure, intelligent (but unwise) girls with shaky self-esteem.

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16 Responses to Don’t Praise Your Daughter for Being Intelligent

  1. caprizchka says:

    Schools foster addiction to praise and to value obedience over achievement. John Taylor Gatto explains the methodology well. Since girls today seem to want to be “liked” more than to achieve they are easy pickings. Today, every child is a “star” or a “princess” which is a recipe for adult failure except of course as an obedient cog in the wheel, fully replaceable/expendable “good” little soldiers unable to wield authority or independence.

    • emmatheemo says:

      That’s sad. I see your reasoning – girls are more into being liked and socially accepted, so they are more ready to accept some favorable label, even if it makes them fearful of losing it and thus more limited. So girls have more internal crap to fight against, when they try to achieve something.

      • Eric says:

        Unfortunately, a lot of that is going on in American schools. A kid can be as stupid as a doorknob, but the teachers will tell him he’s just as good and valuable as someone with a high IQ. American schools really push ‘equality of outcome’ and the expense of self-improvement.

        It’s reflected terribly in our society where the entitlement mentality reigns and we get this weird social combination of arrogance and stupidity prevailing in a lot of people’s characters. Just look at American politicians and how they’ve been trying to deal with Russia and China recently—it’s a perfect reflection of that kind of social hubris fostered by our incompetent schools.

  2. A high iQ person has real problems in school. in today’s egalitarian environment, if a very high IQ student makes effort, he will totally outdo all his companions. He will learn all first year subjects in 4 weeks and then do what?

    At least i learned to turn off my brain and to create some obstacles for myself, so I would not get bored out of my mind, nor be chided as being to studious and too good.

    The only solution would be the politically totally incorrect strategy of separating kids according to IQ. Effort may compensate a little.

    How can a high IQ kid be challenged in school, when they are not only with mediocre children. now it is fashionable to put a few retarded kids in his class. Or some foreigners with average intelligence but zero language skills. How could such a kid possibly be challenged?

    • emmatheemo says:

      Interesting. Seems many had some IQ-related problem in school. I never felt like you did (was above average, but not by a a lot), but perhaps the most genius kids in class did.

  3. Pingback: Johnson on not praise but discipline | Vae Victis

  4. Liz says:

    4.0 GPA in acting…that’s pretty damned funny. 😀

    I had a rude awakening when I went to the University and majored in engineering too, Emma. My problem wasn’t that I thought I was smart, but I didn’t realize how much effort even the smartest people have to put into those classes. It was very humbling. Also (in my experience back then, things may have changed) people were pretty arrogant and always said they ‘did really well’ even when they didn’t.
    Actually helped me a lot to meet my husband in physics and he set me off on the right path. He explained that everyone was struggling (and since he was in his senior year of aerospace engineering with a 3.85 I believed him). His advice was to talk to the professors and ask for help. This had never actually dawned on me (huge university, you feel like a number and forget that the professors are supposed to be there for you). Anyway, that helped a LOT. I “got it” after that.

  5. Liz says:

    I enjoyed Matt Forney’s article, but disagree that intelligence in women isn’t a desireable attribute. A degree isn’t the equivalent of intelligence. Nor are grades. But the ability to engage in witty repartee/humor is an intelligence trait, and a pretty important one (at least to intelligent people)…as is the ability to hold a conversation and reasoning skills. We’re not just a bunch of rumping goats, we’re people and that sort of thing matters.
    You know why they say for every beautiful woman there’s a guy out there who is tired of f*cking her? That’s because looks are so often the only thing those women had to offer.

    • emmatheemo says:

      I agree, I think men want a woman who can understand them and their points. Her IQ doesn’t need to be very high, just enough to be around the same level as him. They just don’t like arrogance and argumentativeness, and flaunting the “intellect” in his face.

      • Liz says:

        “They just don’t like arrogance and argumentativeness, and flaunting the “intellect” in his face.”
        I think this stems from feelings of insecurity and inferiority….the opposite of intelligence. Really…would these types of women spend any time trying to convince people who take the short-bus that they’re “so smart and accomplished, really really”? It’s inferiority. If they were smart, it would be apparent and they wouldn’t have to try and promote themselves. (kind of like being rich and/or successful…goes for everyone to include men of course. James Bond wouldn’t spend any time talking about how many women he’d banged or how bad-*ss sophisticated he is).

      • emmatheemo says:

        I agree it can be a sign of insecurity. But I would argue insecurity and using the wrong strategy to get respect and love are not necessarily due to lack of intelligence. It’s a lack of wisdom. Lots of us were once unwise, insecure or wrong about something, without our IQ being smaller. There is a lot more to being wise than IQ, i believe.

      • Liz says:

        ” Lots of us were once unwise, insecure or wrong about something, without our IQ being smaller. There is a lot more to being wise than IQ, i believe.”
        Point taken, I suppose that’s true.
        I’ve just never understood those sort of tactics. It has always seemed more advantageous to be underestimated (and pleasantly surprise people) than to be overestimated and disappoint (or make oneself look like an ass…but I suppose I’ve been there too).

      • emmatheemo says:

        I also wonder why people would think this is a good way to get respect. Maybe there is no major reason, just a mistaken tactic (maybe their parents told them to toot their own horn, or whatever you call it).

  6. Pingback: Don’t Praise Your Daughter for Being Inte...

  7. Don’t praise your children period unless it is something very special that requires it. I had a mother who was way too praiseful of very little achievements.

    If its true that guys put girls on piedestal, it seem to follow that parents today put their children on piedestal. It’s probably a good path to delinquency to too easily reward normal behavior. I believe a little harshness goes a long way, I consider I had way too nice parents, especially my mother always picking my side over my dad to keep me “happy”. Bad idea of course and you remember 20+ years later when she picked the side of you as a boy over what your dad said.

    Mothers especially need to learn to never side with their children over the father. That gives terrible clues to the child who lose all sense of direction. Then you can be sure I exploited it, knowing she would say yes if I was bothersome enough.

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