Hard Work Revisited

Thanks to all who have weighed in on the Scientific American article.

I have had some interesting e-mail discussion with others who found the article a useful reminder for their own parenting, and said, like my friend Rex in the comments from the easier post, that it rang true with their own experience. (Though I also think Rex just likes disagreeing with me for spite. 😉 )

I’m gonna continue to maintain that though the basic thrust of the article seems plausible — and rest assured, we here at Red Sea central duly give out the “you really worked hard at that!” praise and steer clear of the “you’re so smart!” praise — I question some basic assumptions behind it. The tortoise v. hare, worker bee v. genius slacker is a false dichotomy our culture loves. I can’t come up with any reason why Mozart would be made to serve as an example of someone who put in years of hard work, unless “hard work” becomes a requirement for valuing an accomplishment. And of course my perspective comes from own experience of 1) personally never being able to work hard enough to counter the claim that I was breezing through school and 2) watching a school tell my daughter that she needed to show more diligence, though they would not actually put her in a classroom or give her materials that would require her to think. (This was the from the teacher who looked at Violet’s test scores and told us about how she was always the last in from lunch, as proof of her slow and lazy ways.) Also, I mostly see my friends and their spouses working like dogs, skipping vacations, doing 70-hour weeks, because the definition of “achievement” keeps getting ratcheted up. I think I am wary of the “achievement” extollers for good reason, because it easily goes sour.

I could go on, but I actually wanted to revisit this post because of an interesting show I heard on MPR today, about Generation Y (20 somethings), their sense of entitlement, their work habits, their career patterns, etc. One theme that came up a lot was how this generation needed a lot of approval and guidance from superiors. Another was that they had come to expect a trophy for every minor achievement, like showing up. They show minimal appreciation for knowledge learned by the experience of workplace veterans. And this is the generation of the Helicopter Parent, who calls the boss to ask why Junior got a bad performance review, or explain that Junior needs a raise. (Yes, I heard actual accounts of this — can you imagine? If your parent did that would you not want to curl up and die with shame?)

Listening to this made me think of the article about effort, praise, and competence. I had to wonder: is there a generation being raised to believe they are, innately, the greatest thing since sliced bread? Or rather, that they are so innately awesome that they need not do more than show up to earn a management-sized paycheck? In that context, the Scientific American article makes more sense to me. In any case, I would be really curious to hear someone speculate on the relationship between feeling disempowered by excessive praise and feeling entitled to a good grade or a good job regardless of the quality of the output. It seems to me I have heard that excessive praise is the culprit in both cases.

(If you are a Generation X’er, like me, you might be curious to know that one of the researchers maintained that GenXers tended to be more independent in the workplace, which caused some tension when their GenY employees wanted lots of strokes and direction. By contrast, Boomers and GenYers got on great together, as GenYers responded to Boomers like the parents they adore.)

I’ll dig up the research for another post, but I would suspect that the disempowerment felt by highly gifted kids who get the “you are so smart” thing — which comes from grandparents, teachers, and friends, even when parents assiduously avoid it — comes from a whole stew of variables. Kids who are (at least in one sense) smarter than 99.9% of their peers are generally smart enough to know it, regardless of what they’re told. (Though I have to stress again that for highly gifted kids, advanced academic ability is is just one slice of the pie.) It may be a Midwestern thing, but to me it is at least as common to see adults who feel that kids with a lot of innate ability need to be “taken down a peg” as it is to hear the “aren’t you smart!” The unwillingness to accelerate highly gifted kids means that they have to wait until junior high or high school to get any work that seems remotely challenging, and maybe til college or grad school to really feel the need to stretch. I can’t say whether I am highly gifted, but I can surely remember talking myself through the trauma of my first “B” grade on a paper in college! Many spend a lot of time being “the only one” — the only one who can read, the only one who (finally!) gets a grade skip, the only one who uses an unusually adult vocabulary.  It’s isolating. I think these factors, along with too much praise for being really smart, weigh heavily into the well documented reality that highly gifted learners frequently become unmotivated and unwilling to risk failure.

I like homeschooling for this reason — we emphasize mastery of a topic rather than grades, and we choose the level at which we work in a matter-of-fact way that does not involve making comparisons with what other kids are doing.  We have made an effort to find other highly gifted homeschoolers so that Violet does not feel she is “the only one” any more (of course she plays with all kinds of kids at most homeschool events). And we have time to do things like fencing and ice skating lessons, which give her the chance to work at something for which she does not have innate talent!

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2 Comments

Filed under Gifted Heart and Soul, In the News, Learning Styles, Our Philosophy (such as it is), Why Homeschool?

2 responses to “Hard Work Revisited

  1. Wow, there is a lot of respond to here.

    Your thoughts on “hard work” and its intrinsic value ring true to me. While I do believe in putting in effort I am more drawn to the Japanese way of doing things where they put their heart into their work (as well as long hours). I recommend reading The Japanese Educational Challenge. It is dated but it influenced me a lot.

    I am not looking for Z to put in long hours I want her to put her “spirit” into her work. And I don’t expect it in everything.

    As for Generation Y, I have certainly known some kids like that. When I owned the bookstore the kid working for me was exactly like that. I think he is a little better now that he is out in the real world and has been shown that his expectations were unrealistic.

    I haven’t done any reading nor have I given it that much thought but I can see how a case could be made that GenY has a sense of entitlement. I think it is probably brought on by the media and advertisers (which also influence their parents.) I remember when I was old enough to babysit that I was astounded that the four year old (this was in the 80’s) had a TV in his bedroom. I think a lot of middle class+ GenY kids grew up with a TV and a couple games systems and mother’s who served them their dinner in their room so they didn’t have to leave their computer game.

    And, of course, they grew up during the big promotion of “self esteem” before all else in schools. (I think a lot of that stuff is really ridiculous.)

    I should probably be quiet on that subject before I get into trouble.

    Now that I have moved to the midwest I do think there is a “take ’em down a notch” attitude for intellectually gifted kids. (musing… maybe that is why my mother is that way…)

    I homeschool for a lot of the same reason you write about in your last paragraph. Good post!

  2. Pingback: Credit Where Credit is Due « Red Sea School

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