NurtureShock: A book review in two parts (Part 1)

by DaniGirl on November 9, 2009 · 17 comments

in Books, Mothering without a licence

Back in early 2007, the blogosphere was a-cackle over an essay that appeared in New York Magazine. The gist of it, from what I could glean, was that we were over-praising our kids, and that too much praise was a bad thing. I never did get around to reading the source article, but I frothed in more than one blog’s comment section about how ridiculous I found the concept. Too much praise? No such thing. After all, I was raised on a steady diet of affirmation and praise, and I think it was one of the factors that most strongly contributed to the best parts of the adult I am today.

In the last week or so, I started hearing buzz about that theory in the background noise again, and found out that the authors of the original article had expanded it into a book that was getting a lot of interest. The book is called NurtureShock, and the general idea they posit is that we’ve been ignoring some of the most important scientific discoveries about children, learning and parenting. They propose to “use the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.”

They were on CBC’s The Current last week, and although I missed it, the buzz reminded me that I wanted to check out the book. I was 104th in the queue when I requested it from the library, but lucked into a copy on the two-week “express reads” shelf the very next day.

I had the blog post half-written in my head as I walked out of the library. I was going to do a thorough, scholarly analysis and discount the theory on a point-by-point basis. I was going to tear it to pieces. I could hardly wait. I still had 20 minutes left to kill in Tristan’s skating lesson when I pulled out the book and started reading, pencil and notebook at my side. I was on page four – FOUR! – when my jaw dropped open in shock and dismay.

They were describing Tristan. To a perfect T. I did a 180-degree about-face. They were — gasp! — right!

The chapter starts with Thomas, a child whose IQ test scored him among the top one percent of the top one percent of applicants to his school:

Tristan Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.'” With no more than a glance, Tristan Thomas was dividing the world into two — things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

In the last year, I’ve seen this pattern a LOT in Tristan, in everything from riding a bike to drawing to math problems. Most things are easy for him, but the things that aren’t make him want to quit immediately. He’s reluctant to try, in case he might fail.

I read the rest of the chapter with avid interest. Turns out, their theory is not so much that praise itself is detrimental, but that gratuitous, insincere and non-specific praise is. They review a scientific study in which two groups of students were asked to do puzzles well within their ability. One group was given the single line of praise “You must be smart at this” while the other was given the single line of praise “You must have worked really hard.” The students were then offered the choice between two puzzles. One choice was a more challenging puzzle that researchers told the kids they’d learn a lot from attempting and the second choice was an easy test, just like the first. The results? “Of those praised for their effort, 90 per cent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids took the cop-out.”

Carol Dweck, the researcher who engineered these studies, was surprised by the magnitude of the effect of praise on the students’ choices. She theorizes that praising the effort gives the child a variable he or she can control, while praising an innate characteristic like intelligence “takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

The chapter goes on to discuss the culture of self-esteem building that has been inherent to parenting advice for the last three or four decades, following the publication of Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem. The authors note that the idea of promoting and preserving a child’s self-esteem has become “an unstoppable train [where] anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned on. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.”

Another researcher, after reviewing 200 scientifically-sound studies on measuring self-esteem and its outcomes found that “having a high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement.” In fact, he believes that “the contiued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: it’s so strong that ‘when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.'”


And yet, the more I read, the more “Aha!” moments I had. One of my pet rants is the ‘culture of entitlement’ we seem to be living in right now. No wonder “failure is not an option” in Ontario schools… and small wonder that adults bring the same attitudes into the workforce.

I was so gobsmacked, so excited by what I read, that I couldn’t wait to talk to Beloved about it. I stood in the kitchen and talked about how clearly I saw Tristan in the examples. He scores quite well in just about every subject, and yet he is so obviously reluctant to try things he won’t immediately excel at. He is very risk-averse when it comes to trying new activities, but loves to do the things he does well.

Beloved was obviously listening to me, but he was regarding me with an expression on his face so curious that I eventually stopped in mid-sentence. “What?” I asked.

“You don’t see it, do you?” he asked, and I blushed. I did see it. “It’s not just Tristan, it’s YOU!” I skulked out of the kitchen muttering, “Stupid book, stupid praise, stupid husband thinks he knows me so well, what does he know, grumble grumble grumble…”

Of course he is right. He’s so right. It is me. My name is DaniGirl, and I am a praise junkie. I need to be validated. This blog exists because of my fundamental need for external validation. From the time of sentinence, I have made choices that would please my parents and those around me. And, I hate to fail. Really, really hate to fail. My ongoing struggles with French are a case study in my unwillingness to take the necessary risk of possibly making a mistake in public and looking foolish in the name of learning. If I can’t figure something out practically immediately, I lose interest.

Now, I also believe that the strong sense of self that my parents instilled in me from birth has practically everything to do with the fact that I am a happy, confident and successful adult who has achieved by age 40 just about everything I set out to do in life. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather be a vaguely needy praise junkie with a successful career, loving husband, stable environment, lovely children, supportive family and terrific friends than an independent and persistent homeless crack addict. But I have to say, the first chapter of this book has given me lots to think about.

When I got to the end of that first chapter, I turned the page and realized the subject had moved on to an examination of whether kids getting, on average, an hour less sleep is causing ADHD, obesity and lost IQ points. Another interesting theory, perhaps, but I was anxious: where’s the rest? Where’s the answer? I want more on the subject of praise, please. Twenty-six pages hasn’t covered this in nearly enough detail for me. I need a roadmap, and a checklist. I need a work sheet. What if I fail?!

In all honesty, I’m not sure I can dial back the praise. It is too deeply ingrained in who I am, and in how I raise my boys. It is fundamental to who I am. I will, however, be more selective in my praise, and try to praise what the boys can control over what they cannot. I like the idea presented that the brain is a muscle that grows with each mistake made and learned from, and I’ll definitely be incorporating that into my mothering repetoire.

I’m almost afraid to read the rest of the book. What other deeply-held and fundamental tenents may be toppled like the Berlin Wall by the time I’m done? I’ll come back and let you know whether I can even look myself in the mirror by the time I’m done.

In the interim, as always, I’m curious as to your thoughts. Can you praise a child too much? Have we as a culture become self-esteem junkies? Is there any hope for an inveterate praise junkie like me, or should I just focus on saving the boys from praise addiction?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy @ Muddy Boots November 9, 2009 at 10:06 am

“Of course he is right. He’s so right. It is me. My name is DaniGirl, and I am a praise junkie. I need to be validated. This blog exists because of my fundamental need for external validation. From the time of sentinence, I have made choices that would please my parents and those around me. And, I hate to fail. Really, really hate to fail. … If I can’t figure something out practically immediately, I lose interest.”

Okay, I actually stopped breathing when I read this. THAT. IS. ME. TOO.

Also, Liam sounds a lot like your Tristan. When we moved here and unsympathetically threw him into ALL-FRENCH kindergarten even though he didn’t speak a word of French, he reeeeally struggled. His teacher was so frustrated with him (as were we) because HE WOULDN’T EVEN TRY.

But I KNOW my son and I knew that he just didn’t want to make mistakes. I knew that he WAS learning and WAS taking it all in, but refused to practice out loud until he could be ASSURED of doing it well.

Reading this book sounds like it’s giving you more insight into yourself which will only serve you as you mother Tristan (and your other boys).

I think I need to read that book too.

2 kate November 9, 2009 at 10:12 am

I don’t know where to start. I definitely recogonize myself in the not doing things I’m not good at. But I wouldn’t consider myself a praise junkie at all. I don’t tend to do anything to please people – not that I want to displease them, I’m just not going to go against my own desires to do so. Then I realized that I have a lot of memories of my dad praising my effort for good grades. But it always felt insincere because I never put effort into getting good grades.

I see it in my son too, the not trying things he doesn’t think he’ll be good at. But like you, I can’t worry that much about it, because I’m a reasonably well-adjusted, comfortable in my own skin adult. And I put a lot of effort into getting better at things I’m good at – not to be the best but to be always better.

All that said, I think there are other ways to build self-esteem and resilience in kids besides praise. My dad was always one to talk about things that were within my control and things that weren’t. So competing became not about winning but about benchmarking my performance, because winning depends on what other people do, which is way beyond my control.

3 Chris (Mombie) November 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

I got on this train when I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and I realized that I had a very fixed mindset in many areas (she’s all about fixed mindsets vs growth mindsets and what that means for people). Basically, for me, having to work at something, to practice, meant I wasn’t smart and I had everything invested in being smart. This attitude has been with me as long as I remember but I don’t know if was as a result of praise or something I developed on my own.

I saw the same thing developing in my oldest son so I started working on it right away for both of us, praising effort instead of results, suggesting that other people’s succes came from hard work, reminding us both that the brain is a muscle and that we need to work it to make it strong. It’s making a real difference for him and, more slowly, for me.

4 Chris (Mombie) November 9, 2009 at 10:44 am

Oh, and I’m investigating Dweck’s program here : to see if that might add to my efforts.

5 Tracey November 9, 2009 at 11:04 am

I’m taking a parenting class right now for help with my “challenging” son. They have advised that I step up the praise as much as possible, but make it very specific.

“I liked the way you came when I called you for dinner–that was really nice”
“I liked the way you played so nicely with your sister. That’s fantastic”
“Thanks so much for washing your hands the way I showed you. You did a really good job”

And so on and so on. I praise all day long. And, it’s working! I am seeing such an improvement in his behaviour and attitude. I now make a point of “praising” every good behaviour, however little it may seem.

This approach may not be for everyone, but has it ever made a difference in our house!

6 Mary Lynn November 9, 2009 at 11:37 am

Oh my gosh. I want to read this book and I’m afraid to read this book. The part you quote totally describes my daughter, And yes–it describes me. Though, to be truthful, it describes me more 10, 20, 30 years ago than it does now as I get older. I’ve become braver the older I’ve gotten–more willing to risk falling on my face. It probably helps that I’ve failed a few times, but the hard part is that I never really hit any major failures till my late 20’s and when I did hit them they were fairly devastating till I finally realized I could actually pull myself up by the bootstraps and move on.

My daughter reacts so badly to failure, even in the most trivial things. A small error in her otherwise perfect homework reduces her to tears. My husband and I recognized this a few months ago and realized that we needed her to get used to the idea that mistakes can be a good thing. Mistakes are how we learn.

I used to “reverse-cheat” when I played boardgames with her to ensure that she would win and I would lose. I don’t do that anymore.

I think I definitely have to pick up a copy of the book to see what else it has to say. Thanks for the review…looking forward to reading Part 2.

7 Lynn November 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm

We read an essay by these authors on this topic about a year and a half ago, and immediately recognized our oldest, too. I guess it’s the oldest that gets a dumping of praise :).

Since then we have really tried to do two things — to praise specific behaviours instead of general characteristics, and to encourage him to keep trying when he fails the first time, because getting something wrong helps us learn new things. We have a lot of faith in this new approach but even after more than a year, it’s been a struggle. When he works on homework and makes a mistake, he often gets so frustrated he cries, but we don’t back down — we talk to him calmly about how important it is to keep trying, and we stick it out patiently for as long as it takes to convince him to try again.

We have been rewarded a few times by him finally getting something and being so very happy with himself, so we know it is the right thing. But changing his attitudes now is going to be a long process.

I just read Mary Lynn’s comment about how she used to let her kid win at games, and I admit, that’s something I’m still guilty of. I need to get on that one. It’s just so hard to find the balance between encouraging your child and letting them know that you are in their corner, and equipping them to actually be successful in the world.

8 Amber November 9, 2009 at 1:14 pm

I can so relate to this. When my daughter was a baby I read Barbara Coloroso’s “Kids are Worth It!”. In it, she talks about how praise, especially empty, non-specific praise, is bad. I was totally baffled and didn’t believe it. And then I read her ‘Is your child addicted to praise’ quiz, and realized that my baby was too young, but *I* am totally, totally addicted to praise.

I am ‘good’ and ‘smart’, and I always have been. I choose to do things and behave in a way that reinforces that self-image, and wins me praise. It totally convinced me that I don’t want to repeat that. Because I don’t want my kids to be shackled by the perfectionism that I face.

So, I don’t say ‘good job!’ 3000 times a day. But I still get excited on their behalf, and offer them lots of love and encouragement. So far, it’s working for us.

9 Chantal November 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm

I was Tristan :), my 8 year old son is him now.

I have actually had a post about my son mulling in my head for a week now and I have had a hard time deciding if I should write about it.

When I was a child I only did things I was good at. I avoided or quit things I wasn’t good at. Now I struggle with my boy. He struggles with school but that is a no brainer for me. He can’t quit. And I definitely don’t spend all my time telling him what a genious he is. I am constantly reminding him that school is work and it isn’t easy. And we do the home work, and we argue over the home work. It drives me nuts but I figure it is the only way to teach him that he will have to work in order to succeed at school

My example where I struggle is with hockey (and there are more, but I will focus on one). He enjoys it and he is good at it. During practice he skates fast, shoots hard and generally enjoys himself. During the game she shirks from the puck, slows down considerably and rarely contributes. My husband and I have been trying to work on him. To get his confidence up. We started with praise but that didn’t work. Now we need to figure him out. When I was a child I would quit activities I found hard (highland dancing, tap, soccer). My parents didn’t know how to deal with me so they let me quit. As an adult I asked my mom “Why did you let me quit X activity”. Her answer is always “because you wanted to quit”. Is that good enough? Do I let him quit, just because he is afraid to lose, or not to win, or… I really don’t know what the problem is. It is so hard to know what right approach is… UGH

10 bea November 9, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I think it’s pretty logical, and thus common, to prefer doing things we’re good at. Most people don’t come equipped with a real relish for failure. So I’m a bit skeptical about the cause-and-effect relationship of “I praised my kid too much/the wrong way and now he’s like this!”

When that article came out, I found that the study’s findings were being interpreted a bit too literally. Yes, there is this dramatic effect when children are placed in a situation with an unknown adult in a position of authority who says only one thing to them, but in the context of a parenting situation, the specific words we choose when we praise our kids are probably less important than our values, which will be communicated in countless ways. If we value achievement over effort, our children will pick up on that. If we really are proud of their choices rather than their genetic giftedness, that’s what they’ll pick up too.

11 Brie November 9, 2009 at 6:04 pm

When I talked to my husband about the idea of praising too much that he got disgisted and started prasing everything (in a jocking way). For awhile the inside joke was to say to our daughter “good breathing!” He doesn’t think you can priase too much but I think that we do have to be careful with the praise. I try to praise the behaviour, as opposed to just her. More “you drew a great picture of a tree” then “you are great”. Which she is of coarse.

12 coffeewithjulie November 9, 2009 at 6:41 pm

I too had “aha!” moments reading the original article on this book. I have not read the book, but the article really did strike a chord with me.

There was an example along the lines of this … (1) constantly tell your child that they are smart, (2) child likes praise for being smart and associates acceptance with this characteristic of being “smart”, (3) child starts to refuse to do certain subjects in school because they recognize it is challenging and they are not getting it perfect — they won’t be smart, people will find out. Instead of risking “not being smart,” they simply refuse to do it.

The “specific praise” recommendation comes up here too. Don’t praise your child in a general “oh, you’re a smart girl” way, but rather, “I noticed how much work you put in preparing for this project — I’m so proud of you.” In this way, the child learns that hard work brings results, not an innate “smartness.” Come to think of it … maybe I’m pulling this from a book I’ve read recently on raising your children to be resilient.

Either way — I find it all very fascinating as perfectionist tendencies run strong in my family too. I’d much rather my children achieve less in the traditional sense and not be perfectionists … it is hard to be happy when everything “should” be perfect!

13 Marla November 9, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I read the original article you referred to, and it called to mind another one I’d read on games for birthday parties that had disgusted me because they wanted kids to pay Musicall Chairs without taking any chairs away, so that nobody lost! I realized that teaching kids how to be good losers is important, and so that’s how we justify buying lottery tickets, and telling Josephine that that’s how we’ll afford our dream trailer home in Texas, and then losing it all when we don’t win the lottery night after night after night. Then we tell her, well, if we work hard, and save our pennies, we can still have it – it’s just not so easy. But if we really really want it, we can have it, quarter by quarter, dime by dime.

I”m only half-serious there, you know me – but when I volunteer in Josie’s class, I notice that teachers have this down already, and we’d do well to follow their example. They have a vocabulary for behaviours they want to recognize that works for kids – “Good CONNECTION!’ when kids make an association. Or, “You noticed a great DETAIL!” for a kid who points out something in an illustration. And they thank kids a lot, for paying attention to the rules “Thank you all for lining up so quickly, so we don’t keep the French teacher waiting!”

I think what you missed by not reading the first article, is the specificity – but it never said where or how to get it. it doesn’t grow on trees, and as tired, overwhelmed parents, we’re just glad to say something that’s not a “NO, Don’t…” and boy, does it take effort to be specific and detailed when you’re just glad there’s no fisticuffs.

Why is my Captcha “Edouarde Bernikow”?

14 Shannon November 9, 2009 at 9:36 pm

This is a great post, and the comments are also enlightening! I agree that society in general is overpraising kids. My oldest son is also reluctant to try many new things for fear he will not excel at them. I am constantly working with him to get past this, and slowly things are getting better. Unfortunately I am now starting to see it in my second son, who just started JK this year and gets frustrated easily and tends to give up immediately and say “I can’t do it”. There must be some middle ground we parents can find where we are doling out just the right amount of praise. And I am definitely a praise-seeker myself sometimes too, a trait I don’t want to willingly pass on to my children.

Very interesting – I think I’d like to read the book now too!

15 Annie @ PhD in Parenting November 9, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I haven’t read the book and also didn’t catch the authors on The Current this week (but wish I had and haven’t had time to listen to the podcast yet). I have heard them on CBC previously though and while a lot of it makes great sense, I found their tone to be very condescending and “mother blaming”. Another book that I would recommend along the same lines is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting or his Punished by Rewards. Both great reads (I think there is a DVD of Unconditional Parenting too).

16 Hilary November 10, 2009 at 5:30 am

This rings so true for me. In fact, my sister told me the other day that she thinks our parents praised us too much as kids and as a result some professional knock-backs she’s had in her 20s in the ‘real world’ have been really, really tough to deal with.

I think they’re bang-on that the praise culture often has as much to do with praising oneself (don’t I have a fabulous child!) as it does with praising the kid. I can see a degree of this in my own life when I occasionally over-praise my partner and I can only imagine that it’s magnified times a million with a child!

17 Nat November 10, 2009 at 8:00 pm

I read something to this effect when The Boy was a babe. It makes perfect sense really… we’ve taken to really being “big” on praise for things that he’s not so good at. For sticking with things… academically the boy is just ‘average’ but he tries. And you get bonus marks for trying… even if you don’t win/succeed.

I’ve been thinking about ego, failure and all fair bit… this is one more thought in the post that’s simmering.

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