Monday, 14 April 2008

Smarties

A recent article in Scientific American Mind discusses some ideas on how to raise intelligent children. It is a very interesting article and, personally, I have found it much better than all of the child raising guides I have had coming my way so far; probably the result of the way it is written and its evidence based approach. Whether you agree with it or not, I urge you all to go and read it. Just click the link. Do it now.

OK, now that you've read it, you know the article essentially says that in order to effectively increase your child's intelligence, it is better to encourage them and to praise them for making an effort rather than to compliment them on their actual achievements. By praising their achievements you mainly guarantee that they'd be looking for the easier challenges that would earn them repeat compliments rather than help them develop; when they actually do stumble upon a challenge they cannot overcome they would just feel frustrated and look elsewhere quickly. In short, you'd be raising a child who is always on the lookout for the easier solutions in life.
In contrast, if you encourage your child to make an effort, then even if their genetics mean they're not the next Einstein they would still be able to develop and learn to acquire the ability to overcome challenges.
Makes sense to me. It's not only that I have developed resentment towards parents that attack you with the "look at my kid he/she is so smart" approach when their child does something randomly, but rather it touches some soft nerves in my teenage history.

You see, I was one of those kids that were always told they were smart. Indeed, in primary school things were always automatically easy for me without me having to make much of an effort. I do, however, distinctly remember how my first encounter with geometry - while doing homework on 9th grade - has brought me to tears when I simply could not understand anything and wasn't able to do any of the tasks I was supposed to (including stuff that looks pretty ordinary to me now).
Subsequent events where I just wasn't up to the school challenges, virtually all to do with math, have pretty much convinced me that all previous notions I might have had about being smart the way I was told I was were wrong. For all I knew, I was dumb. In retrospect, now I know that most of my challenges were to do with a particularly bad math teacher - indeed, this math teacher is probably one of the very few people I can think of whose longevity demands they keep their distance from me.
My way of addressing my own perceived dumbness was to do what my uncle always told me to do: work hard. Throughout high school I used to devote many an hour to studying, but during my university years I probably broke world records of devotion: In contrast to the happy student life most people lead, my life was purely devoted to studying day in and day out, weekends included. I might have allowed myself the privilege of watching a film once a fortnight, mainly for relaxation purposes. No wonder the thought of studying for a Masters degree is as appealing as one of Dylan's used nappies!
The results, however, did speak for themselves. Regardless of my inherent intelligence, which I still maintain to be pretty average, between my hard work and the help I got from friends I managed to achieve some very respectable achievements in my studies. Not that I think that is a major indicator; most of my official studies were more like a case of digesting facts and spitting them out for a test than actually learning to think for myself. Still, at least I developed the skills that allowed me to achieve that.
My point is simple: Whatever I did manage to achieve was mostly achieved through hard work, and most of the frustration I have had on the way there was because of some perceived need to think myself superior to the problems I have encountered even though I was really only competing against myself. Due to these factors, I tend to agree with the above mentioned article.

More importantly than my own personal observations, I think there is something inherently right about the approach that applauds good intent rather that a good outcome.
I can clearly see problems when I look at things the negative way (at least according to the article's negative). A child that grows up expecting everything to align their way might have enough luck to succeed in most of the things he/she endeavor. This child will, almost surely, grow up to believe that he/she made it through everything because he/she actually deserved to. This is exactly how your average Liberal voter is created: selfishness needs to be justified somehow, and thinking that you deserve something others don't have is the ticket most people use to justify their selfishness.
That notion may sound far fetched but it's not: Western society is built around the concept of meritocracy, namely - those that have something are those that merit it and those that don't have it do not deserve to have it. But is that always the case? I would argue that most of the time we have things due to luck and other factors beyond our control, rather than our own personal merit. Most of our achievements are directly related to the people we were born to. Those who don't have what we have are not necessarily inferior; they are usually just not as lucky as we were.
While the approach that calls for hard work can lead someone to believe they deserve stuff just the same, at least the hard work they would invest on the way would teach them to appreciate their achievements rather than take them for granted.
In short, no one wants a spoiled child, but many of us spoil our children just the same.

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