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Made to order: “kids these days” February 21, 2007

Posted by edukfun in add, adhd, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attention training, children, discipline, education, ld, learning disability, parenting, underachieve.

I blamed Hollywood

The one resounding lesson I took away from my four high school years as a proud underachiever was this:

Hard work is for suckers.

While the “smart” kids were working hard, studying, and doing their homework, I was staying up all night playing computer games (on my Commodore 128, yes I am that old). The homework that I did complete usually came into the world during a horribly long morning bus ride. I graduated with a 3.0001 GPA by showing up and “winging it” on exams. I stayed up until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, and slept in all but computer classes. I thought I was better than everyone else. What suckers they were, actually doing their homework. Bah.

I’ve been paying for that mistake ever since.

In real life, the people who are diligent, conscientious and hard-working are the movers and shakers. They are the people who get things done. They are the ones who write a novel every year (I’ve written 0.34 novels in 33 years). They are the ones who finish college in 4 years (I dropped out). They stay in the Navy for 20 years and retire (early honorable discharge here). They are the ones who set—and break—records.

I blamed Hollywood for my lack of follow-through.

It makes sense. You never see the hero of a movie get to the climax and save the day at the last minute by doing six months of hard work. He always saves the day at the last second by being clever: he had a gun taped on his back, or he used *69, or he tricked the bad guys with sleight-of-hand. If there is ever–EVER–hard work, it gets covered up by an 80’s style montage.

So who are you blaming?

Who are you blaming when you complain about “kids these days”? Kids these days don’t know about hard work. They don’t want to learn. They won’t make an effort. They just don’t care. If you haven’t heard or said something like this yourself, ask the nearest public school teacher.

Then along comes Po Bronson (author of “What Should I Do With My Life?”) with a phenomenal article in New York Magazine, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.” You have to read this article. Parents and teachers, this is an order! The article is here: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/

Read this article. That’s an order!

The essence of the article is this: praising children for being smart, as opposed to working hard and being persistent, stunts their growth. Praising children for making an effort, trying hard and not giving up can improve their performance in school and in life. Children praised for hard work, work even harder. Children praised for being intelligent avoid challenging tasks that might ruin their “smart” self-image. Teaching high school students that intelligence is NOT innate, that the brain is like a muscle–the harder you work it the stronger it gets–raises math scores in underachieving minority students.

My wife is a biology teacher. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will be teaching a segment on how the brain is like a muscle, soon.

Have you read the article yet? What are you waiting for? Go!

It is so easy as parents, teachers, mentors and friends to want to make kids feel good by heaping them with praise. This is a mistake.

“I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.”

“…for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further….”

Kids are wise to insincere flattery–that’ll only work until they’re about 7 years old. Then they can tell when you are full of it. In fact, sometimes kids think that criticism is the real compliment, since the teacher wouldn’t tell you you can do better if they didn’t think you could handle it.

A personal favorite of mine, Nathaniel Branded (of Ayn Rand fame), is mentioned as the father of the modern self-esteem movement. If you’re going to blame anyone for “kids these days”, it might as well be him. He started it, and we as a society ran with it.

There is solid science backing this up (see the article for all those details), and I am a HUGE fan of science. However, the rest of this entry is conjecture.

I look around and hear complaints about “kids these days” and also about “The Greatest Generation.” Could it be that the self-esteem movement was adopted by our social institutions, and propagated throughout the population, and as a consequence we have squelched the stick-to-it-iveness of Generations XYZ?

It makes me think about Everybody Loves Raymond (my brother is Robert to a T. You know this because he will tell you I am Raymond to a T). Frank, the Dad, is a hard-a**. Ray and Robbie have a problem? “Suck it up. Stop crying like a girl.” If ever anyone had no regard for their kids’ self-esteem, it is Frank. I know it is fiction, but it sure seems like The Greatest Generation didn’t molly-coddle their kids, and their kids came out alright. Did their kinder, gentler parenting–served up with dollops of unconditional love and positive messages–squelch the fierce, can-do spirit of their kids?

The (scientific) evidence says that it did. And what worries me is that the positive self-esteem culture is running the show now, and producing kids who don’t care, won’t work hard and just plain old aren’t trying. And I bet a whole heck of a lot of them are getting diagnosed as ADD and ADHD, and instead of getting the training that they need in life, they are getting pills.

On a positive note, this is easy to treat. With just 50 minuts of training, Math scores for underachieving High School students increased in just one semester after a long trend of sliding.

Take up the torch in your home, school, neighborhood and family. This is a vital skill that kids need, can be taught, and will pay off for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t matter who we choose to blame, it is up to us to fix it if it’s broke.

Good Luck!

Allen Dobkin



1. Disciplining Your Child « Train your (child’s) brain for success! - February 26, 2007

[…] When the child does something unusually good, make a big deal out of it. Praise is free. Be specific. Don’t say, “Great Job!” Try, “Great job finishing all your homework.” “I love that you guys put away your shoes. Thank you.” “You got an ‘F’? I’m really proud of you because I saw how hard you studied last night, so I know you did your best. When we get your test back, let’s go over it and see what we can do to help you do better next time.” Be sure to read about the power and danger of praise here. […]

2. drrohn - February 27, 2007

Hi Allen:
You were right. This is a “must read” article. I like the research that supports praising kids for their effort and see it all the time at Sparks of Genius. Especially during cognitive training exercises on the computer which challenge students to improve a wide range of cognitive skills such as attention, memory, listening, processing speed, decision-making and impulse-control.

As students learn to overcome and taked responsbility for their boredom, distractability, frustration and failure, they slowly but surely start winning “games,” advancing to higher levels, and increasing academic, social, athletic and creative accomplishments.

The key is the effort, persistence, and praise (in that order).

I am happy to see the research of Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University, who located the circuit in the prefrontal cortex which monitors the reward center of the brain. It seems there a switch there which tells the brain to keep trying when there’s no immediate reward.” Looking at neuroimages, Dr. Cloninger could see this switch light up regularly in some people and hardly at all in others.

What’s causes the difference? “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

So thanks, Allen, for encouraging us parents (and grandparents) to reward the effort.

The article ends with a father asking his son this question: “What happens to your brain, again, when it gets to think about something hard?”

“It gets bigger, like a muscle,” he responded, having aced this one before.

Mmmmmm. Think I’ll find something challenging to do today.

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