It's not good to boost your children's confidence too much, says a new book. The authors believe that everything we think about raising our offspring is wrong
Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson spent a lot of their days saying things such as “good job”, “great work!” and “how clever!” to children, almost until they were hoarse. Ashley had founded a centre that coached deprived children in Los Angeles, and felt that even if praise might not make up for their damaged lives, she was damn well going to try. Po, well, he was a middle-class author and father-of-two living in San Francisco, and praise is what middle-class parents now do to their children. Their praise, they thought, came from a mix of instinct and researched good practice. They were wrong on both counts.
“When I found out what praise actually did, I was quite horrified,” says Ashley. “I’d been working with underprivileged kids, telling them, ‘you’re wonderful’. And when I read the effects of that, I was stunned. I was angry. I felt, why didn’t anyone tell me about this before?” And Po, when he got the news, he put his family into “praise cold turkey”. “I realised I was going to change the way I spoke to my children overnight.”
Surveys of parents show that nearly all now believe it’s important to tell their children they are bright and talented, to boost their confidence and therefore achievement. It’s a theory of self-fulfilling prophecy, born of the self-esteem movement of the 1970s.
But then Ashley and Po stumbled across the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor. She has proved, in a growing body of work dating back 15 years, that telling a child they are bright causes the opposite result. It didn’t prevent underperforming — it could actually cause it.