Praising Kids: Hail Efforts and Not Achievements

by Petunia Lee
(Singapore)

I was both shocked and pleased to see Professor Carol Dweck featured in the Education Minister's speech at the Primary School Education Seminar and Exhibition. I was shocked because the last thing I expected from MOE was the citation and acknowledgment of more recent psychological research than Professor Lewis Terman (who died in 1956, and whose dated research is STILL the rationale for the form and shape of Singapore's GEP).

I wrote about Professor Carol Dweck HERE and HERE.

I was pleased because finally, someone important, and with influence, is telling bureaucrats and practitioners in MOE that celebrating SMARTNESS is a sure way of demotivating a child in the long term. In fact, this finding is not as recent as that. Professor Carol Dweck has been working on this area for the past 30 years. This said, 30 years ago still brings us to 1983, which is still way more recent than Professor Terman's research done in the 1920s!!

What has not been said is that there are systemic mechanisms in MOE that on a daily, monthly and annual basis celebrate achievements and smarts, not effort. It's not enough for parents to NOT praise the child for smartness, parents have to UNDO the smartness (or stupidness) message sent by the system.

I know because I have been doing this UNDOING business for YEARS. I spent 6 years telling The Daughter that she WASN'T smart. My excuse was - I'm not smart and The Husband is not smart. Since you're our daughter, you can't be smart. I made sure The Daughter knew that even though she was in a special class in a top school, she wasn't smart. Thank God she believed me!! I spent 3 years telling Little Boy that it's OK not to be smart, we just have to work harder.

I tell you... it's not enough to NOT praise the child wrongly. One has to UNDO the subliminal "praises" or "judgments of stupidity" from the school system!

(1) Streaming


When children pass tests and get into GEP or Express or Normal, the system shouts at them
(1) "You're smart" (Gifted)
(2) You're OK smart"(Express)
(3) "You're dumb"(Normal)

The systemic message is "You're born that way and it doesn't matter what effort you put in, you're either destined for great things OR you're run-of-the-mill."

Every single day of existence in that particular labeled stream tells the children how smart they are... or not.

What Happens to Gifted Kids?


Many GIFTED children pull back and tell themselves. I know I am gifted. The IQ tests have confirmed it. Why should I work so hard? It doesn't help that in certain GEP centers (certainly not all), kids are badly taught and many gifted kids hate it there. There is no joy in learning for these precious children with an innate propensity to learn fast and an innate propensity to love learning.

The child is smart, right? It doesn't take long for him/her to decide "Hey! This is crappy. I have no life. Whatever it is, I'm gifted, right? Even if I don't try, I'll get somewhere. Let me just coast along." In the short term, that's ok because the child is bright enough to still scrape through again and again. Nonetheless, an entire childhood spent like this moulds one's character a certain way, no?

Are we really maximising the potential of our precious Gifted children?

What Happens to OK SMART Kids With Wise Parents?


The OK SMART ones with wise parents who focus on effort... will pour in resources of time and money. These are the students who will bypass many of the GEP students to do very well at the PSLE. These are the ones who come through with strength of purpose and attitude. They tell themselves "I'm not gifted but I will do well if I put in effort."

In the end, it is these who will be more useful and productive citizens.

It's a crying shame because these kids are nowhere near bright as those in GEP. If the GEP were motivated to put in half that effort to excel, perhaps we would have a few Nobel prize winners by now? The system has done our gifted children a terrible disservice, and GEP parents often don't realise what the system is doing to their kids by labeling them.

This said, if the parents have little time or money for enrichment, then the OK SMART kids will just let the label "OK SMART" define them, and not try. You see, learning outside school is UBER important if one wishes to do well.

What Happens to OK SMART Kids With UNWise Parents?


The OK SMART ones with UNwise parents who focus on nothing but achievement blight their children's entire childhood. Learning is stressful and days are filled with recriminations and tuition.

The Straits Times reported a while back that teens in a certain top school populate an entire tuition centre specializing in IP tuition for that certain top school. It was also reported that this was not because the teens NEEDED the tuition. It made them FEEL better. Clearly, here are students who cannot face failure because achievement defines their self-esteem. These children will suffer when they meet REAL LIFE because no matter how clever you are, REAL LIFE always always deals you blows. Somehow.

The system has done our OK SMART children (with UNwise parents) a disservice too.

Speaking from my own experience, it took a lot of courage for me to deny my OK SMART son tuition in Math, Science and Chinese (subjects that I could not teach because I knew so little)... and letting the PSLE chips fall where they would, based on HIS OWN EFFORT alone. Not many parents have the nerve to do what I did to my son (in view of how PSLE results are used to allocate places in good and not-so-good schools).

I only found the nerve to do so because I had read Carol Dweck's research and I was prioritizing long-term character development before short-term achievement.

What Happens to Kids Labeled Dumb?


Many give up.


(2) Bell Curve


The forced ranking at PSLE that pits student gladiators each against the other SCREAMS smart or stupid, when the PSLE results come out. Even if parents refrain from praising their children for smartness, it matters little. Parents like me have to actively UNDO the subliminal messaging that comes through to our children every day, every quarter and every year of school. The PSLE t-score that arrives in a sealed slip messages Smart. Smart. Smart. ....... or....... Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. With Little Boy, I made an effort to reframe the slip. How many parents know they have to undo MOE's messaging or risk long-term motivation to study?

(3) Class Streaming


Parents don't have to tell their children they're smart. The children tell it to each other when they see all the clever ones go to one class. Those in the top class KNOW they've achieved. The entire system has made judgment and TOLD them without words how smart they are.

Celebration of Achievement or Smartness is Endemic in MOE


The celebration of Achievement or IQ is endemic in MOE. I am hoping that since the Education Minister has cited Professor Carol Dweck's work, some of these outdated systemic features will be reviewed and updated in the light of more recent psychological research.

* Read more of Dr Pet's articles on her blog here.

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Sep 13, 2016
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According to my knowledge, Professor Carol Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She moved on from Barnard College in 1967 and earned a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1972. Official website

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Jul 12, 2013
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my two sons
by: KC

First and foremost I love my two sons notwithstanding my views.

My eldest diagnosed with autism has journeyed from attending path light, a special needs school to now in the 1st class of his standard. My second son like wise is also in the 1st class. They attend 1 tuition a week on creative writing.

Clearly from the becoming my younger son was academically smarter and socially more adjusted than my elder. The tables have turned on many fronts Due to following
1. Praise to God for his mercies.
2. My mantra to my eldest that unlike his peers he will fall many times before he learns what others do it naturally.

And everytime he falls he has to pick himself up. This advice n his favorable response alone has instilled in him the qualities we need as adults; perseverance, temperance, consistency, drive to improve oneself, live to eexperience life and all its failures and success to its fullest, tenacity.

These traits will see him thru the storms and success of his future. My younger son has begun to realize that smarts do not last forever, something his brother told him why his exam results were not good.

A finishing touch- psle is one moment albeit important moment. Life will continue regardless. Including myself I know of two others who hv repeated our A levels are now business owners with relatively good success. Years ago my science teacher condemned me infront of his class behind my back I was a stupid students and amount to nothing. Well his words are not final.

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