What’s so great about hard work; or, another look at praise

Many of you have probably seen the recent Scientific American article that has been making the rounds of many homeschool and gifted e-mail lists.

It cites some studies on “human motivation” to reach the conclusion that people praised for their effort tend to be more motivated and feel more in control of their learning than people who are praised for innate ability. I don’t really want to dispute that claim.

But I have some questions about the further implications both in the article and in the discussion generated around the article in educational and parenting circles.

In general, I’m on board with the idea of praising effort and not praising — or punishing — kids just for “being.”

I do wonder, however, why a lot of this seems oriented towards intelligence. Where are the articles about not praising kids who have a lot of athletic ability?

Very bright kids are exercising their abilities when they accomplish something intellectually, even if they did not have to struggle to get it.

Speaking as a workaholic (seriously, this has come up as a problem with both spouse and kids), sometimes it occurs to me that “hard work” is just as relative a value as “intelligence,” “charm,” or anything else we decide to praise. Being ambitious, working long hours — these strike me as things that our culture holds in high esteem, but they are character traits just like anything else. People hold them and develop them in varying degrees, and that’s OK.

I think it is a rite of passage for gifted kids to hear some variation of, “Well, yes, but it comes easy for you. So-and-so really worked for it.” Your A is nothing compared to someone else’s B. You being valedictorian isn’t as meaningful as your cousin’s GED because he really had to struggle. In this scenario, what child wouldn’t become unmotivated and give up trying to please the “hard work” advocates? I worry that kids who excel but still feel they aren’t doing enough because they haven’t “worked hard” will … well, will turn out like me! I get a lot done, yes, but think of all the money I would be saving on therapy, not to mention my children’s future therapy! Can’t talent be something to enjoy rather than be a contract for indentured servitude?

Sometimes I wonder if these issues are slightly manufactured, somewhere from the depth of our culture’s general anti-intellectual bent — not to mention our culture’s overbearing message to acheive! acheive! acheive! above all else. (Ever heard that one, at-home moms?) My daughter has some obvious natural talents in music and writing. Guess what she is driven to do for hours on end? [hint: right now she and her sister are creating a musical about the seasons] She has a gift for learning language — guess what she’s asked to study in homeschool? Is it hard for her? Who cares?!

Not to extrapolate facts from my own experience, but my reading on giftedness suggests that kids who have a natural talent often display it because of their inner drive to do so. I think it is not that simple to distinguish talent from effort.

Finally, I think there is room for praising innate qualities. I love to be told things like, “you have a nice voice,” or “you have a gift for writing,” or “you have a talent for leadership.” When people talk about my work ethic, it is more like, “you work too hard,” or “I don’t know how you do it,” and those things don’t feel as good (especially because I know the “how I do it” is by neglecting other important things).

I often praise my kids by saying things like, “You are fun to be with,” and “You have a good sense of humor,” and “You are a good helper,” in addition to the specific praise like, “That was a very thoughtful thing to do,” and “It’s so nice to see sisters playing nicely together.” I want to raise my kids to work (reasonably) hard, but I also want to raise them believing that they — and everyone — have worth not because of what they do but just because they are.

If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to read the article and post your thoughts on your blog, and put a link to your post in the comments. (Or comment, of course, but I know how loquacious and thoughtful you all are.



Filed under Gifted Ed, Gifted Heart and Soul, In the News, Learning Styles

9 responses to “What’s so great about hard work; or, another look at praise

  1. I’ve written a post, of course 😉 It’s here: http://homespunschool.blogspot.com/2007/12/shaun-has-me-pegged.html

    Thank you for once again writing an excellent, thought-provoking post. Good work! 😉

  2. Good post!

    I do think it is hard for smart people to be told that their successes mean less than those of someone “who really had to work for it.” I think that is just sour grapes on the part of people who are uncomfortable with intelligence.

    It makes me discouraged sometimes.

    There is a lot I want to say about this but I will try to put it on my own blog.

  3. alicefairyland

    I think you make so many interesting points as well as sensible points. I really am conflicted on this, there must be a happy medium.

  4. That was me logged in as Ami. 🙂

  5. Well anyone telling you your success is meaningless because it came easy for you is an ass – that’s not really what the article is about. I read some version of this article in New York magazine recently, and all I can say as a formerly gifted kid is that almost Every Word Rang True. KNOWING that I was smarter than 99% of humanity was Not empowering. I think our host is right about WORK being another potentially problematic way of measuring people, but I honestly believed effort was for Suckers when I was growing up, and I known Lots of current and former smart kids who believe(d) the same. Not good. Disabling, in fact – not good at dealing with failure At All. Etc.

    Surely we all can see that encouraging effort in kids – encouraging to challenge themselves, to risk failure – is a good thing, while suggesting in any way that their worth as a human being is contingent on it is horrible. That said, the balance is admittedly difficult to strike. And yet who said this was going to be easy?


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