My 7-year-old son Kyle is smart. I have often reminded him of that fact.

But I also know he happily completes school work when it's easy but disengages when it requires real effort.

An assignment asked him to write sentences for his vocabulary words. One of the words was "children."

The sentence Kyle came up with? "Kids are children" – this from a boy whose verbal abilities are twice what mine were at his age.

A new book suggests I may be at fault. The book, "Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children," is an in-depth look at the latest research on child development.

It's a doozy and should be required reading for parents and educators. It reinforced the gentle admonishment I get occasionally from Jim Rogers, a local parenting expert, that good parents aren't born, but made. The book explains why. The instincts and personal experiences we rely upon often produce the opposite results we desire.

It shows why parents unwittingly encourage children to lie and why white parents who refuse to speak to their children forthrightly about race hamper their children's ability to see others as equals. It explains why it's critical for black children to receive messages of ethnic pride and why white children don't need that kind of positive reinforcement. But black parents must refrain from overemphasizing the presence of discrimination or risk turning their kids into quitters who blame others for their shortcomings.

What stood out was the research that showed giving a child too much praise makes it more likely he will avoid rather than embrace challenges – because it has a literal effect on his brain, shutting off neurological processes that help people push through struggle and process failure.

"Giving kids the label 'smart' does not prevent them from underperforming," the authors wrote. "It might actually be causing it."

They detail a number of studies involving thousands of children, but it boils down to this: Frequently telling children they are smart to build self-esteem creates misplaced expectations. They begin to believe "smarts" are innate. When they encounter easy tasks, that belief is reinforced. But when challenged, they are prone to give up and make excuses. What's worse, it makes them see the need to struggle to figure out a math problem, for instance, as a negative. Having to work hard, in their minds, means they really aren't smart, even though sustained effort is the key to long-term achievement.

"When students transition into junior high, some who'd done well in elementary school inevitably struggle in the larger and more demanding environment," the authors wrote. "Those who equated their earlier success with their innate ability surmise they've been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure. In interviews many confess they would 'seriously consider cheating.' Students turn to cheating because they haven't developed a strategy for handling failure."

The brains of children whose parents frequently encourage them by saying "You're so smart" instead of "That's a really good grade, your extra study sessions on those math concepts paid off" have a virtually inactive neural network in their prefrontal cortex.

"This circuit monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there's a lack of immediate reward," the authors wrote. "When it switches on, it's telling the rest of the brain, 'Don't stop trying.'"

That's what I told Kyle when he handed me his "kids are children." I made him do it again, to produce better sentences. He did. He had to work harder to write them.

I had to work hard to remember to praise his concentrated effort and willingness to persevere rather than his "smarts."


Source: Myrtle Beach Sun News –