Recently, Fox News, aired a story posing the question as to whether Fred Rogers was evil. Why you may ask, would anyone use the word evil in reference to such a gentle man? They were suggesting that his you’re special message fostered unworthy self esteem and in effect ruined an entire generation of children. This accusation inspired a fair amount of discourse that in some cases boiled down to the question of why children today have such hollow needy shells. An example of the discourse on this topic can be seen at Bruce Hood’s blog in an article entitled Mr. Rogers is Evil According to Fox News.
The consensus among skeptics was that Mr. Rogers was not, in fact, evil and that he is not responsible for the current juvenile generation’s need for much praise and attention for relatively meaningless contribution. There was almost universal acknowledgment of the problem however, and discussions lead to troubling issues such as grade inflation at schools and universities and poor performance in the workplace. In an intriguing article by Carol Mithers in the Ladies Home Journal entitled Work Place Wars addresses the workplace implications of this phenomena. Mithers notes:
“.…. the Millennials — at a whopping 83 million, the biggest generation of all…. are technokids, glued to their cell phones, laptops, and iPods. They’ve grown up in a world with few boundaries and think nothing of forming virtual friendships through the Internet or disclosing intimate details about themselves on social networking sites. And, many critics charge, they’ve been so coddled and overpraised by hovering parents that they enter the job market convinced of their own importance. Crane calls them the T-ball Generation for the childhood sport where “no one fails, everyone on the team’s assured a hit, and every kid gets a trophy, just for showing up.”
Workers of this generation are known for their optimism and energy — but also their demands: “They want feedback, flexibility, fun, the chance to do meaningful work right away and a ‘customized’ career that allows them to slow down or speed up to match the different phases of life,” says Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace.“
I find it ironic that the very people today who struggle with the behavior of the Millennials are the ones who shaped the behaviors of concern. I personally have struggled with the rampant misapplication of praise, attention, and the provision of reinforcement for meaningless achievements. I have seen this everywhere – in homes, schools, youth athletic clubs, you name it. It has been the most recent parenting zeitgeist. But where did this philosophy come from?
Throughout my doctoral training in psychology (late 80’s and early 90’s) I learned that reinforcement is a powerful tool, but it was clear to me that it has to be applied following behaviors you WANT to increase. Nowhere in my studies did I read of the importance of raising children through the application of copious amounts of reinforcement just to bolster their self esteem. I am aware of no evidence based teachings that suggest this approach. However, given the near universal application of these practices it must of come from somewhere. This very question, I’m sure, lead to the placement of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of poor Mr. Rogers.
Although the source of this approach remains a mystery to me, Dr. Carol Dweck’s work clarifies the process of the outcome. In an interview in Highlights, Dr. Dweck discusses Developing a Growth Mindset. Dr. Dweck has identified two basic mindsets that profoundly shape the thinking and behavior both we as adults exhibit and foster in our children. She refers to these as the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. People with a Fixed Mindset, Dr. Dweck notes in the Highlights article, “believe that their achievements are based on innate abilities. As a result, they are reluctant to take on challenges.” Dweck further notes that “People with Growth Mindsets believe that they can learn, change, and develop needed skills. They are better equipped to handle inevitable setbacks, and know that hard work can help them accomplish their goals.” In this same article “She suggests that we should think twice about praising kids for being “smart” or “talented,” since this may foster a Fixed Mindset. Instead, if we encourage our kids’ efforts, acknowledging their persistence and hard work, we will support their development of a Growth Mindset – better equipping them to learn, persist and pick themselves up when things don’t go their way.”
Dweck’s conclusions are based on extensive research that clearly supports this notion. Jonah Lehrer, in his powerful book, How We Decide discussed the relevance of Dweck’s most famous study. This work involved more than 400 fifth grade students in New York City, who were individually given a set of relatively simple non-verbal puzzles. Upon completing the puzzles the students were provided with one of two one-sentence praise statements. Half of the participants were praised for their innate intelligence (e.g., “You must be smart at this.”). The other half were praised for their effort (e.g., “You must have worked really hard.”).
All participants were then given a choice between two subsequent tasks – one described as a more challenging set of puzzles (paired with the assurance that they would learn a lot from attempting) and a set of easier puzzles like the ones the subjects just completed. In summarizing Dweck’s results, Lehrer noted “Of the group of kids that had been praised for their efforts, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. However, of the kids that were praised for their intelligence , most went for the easier test.” Dweck concludes that praise statements that focus on intelligence encourage risk avoidance. The “smart” children do not want to risk having their innate intelligence come under suspicion. It is better to take the safe route and maintain the perception and feeling of being smart.
Dweck went on to demonstrate how this fear of failure can inhibit learning. The same participants were then given a third set of puzzles that were intentionally very difficult in order to see how the children would respond to the challenge. Those who were praised for their effort on the initial puzzles worked diligently on the very difficult puzzles and many of them remarked about how much they enjoyed the challenge. The children who were praised for their intelligence were easily discouraged and quickly gave up. Their innate intelligence was challenged – perhaps they were not so smart after all. Then all subjects were subjected to a final round of testing. This set of puzzles had a degree of difficulty comparable to the first relatively simple set. Those participants praised for their effort showed marked improvements in their performance. On average their scores improved by 30 percentage points. Those who were praised for their intelligence, the very children who had just had their confidence shaken by the very difficult puzzles, on average scored 20 percentage points lower than they had on the first set. Lehrer noted in reference to the participants praised for their effort that “Because these kids were willing to challenge themselves, even if it meant failing at first, they ended up performing at a much higher level.” With regard to the participants praised for intelligence Lehrer writes “The experience of failure had been so discouraging for the “smart” kids that they actually regressed.”
In the Highlights interview Dweck suggests:
“It’s a mistake to think that when children are not challenged they feel unconditionally loved. When you give children easy tasks and praise them to the skies for their success, they come to think that your love and respect depend on their doing things quickly and easily. They become afraid to do hard things and make mistakes, lest they lose your love and respect. When children know you value challenges, effort, mistakes, and learning, they won’t worry about disappointing you if they don’t do something well right away.”
She further notes:
“The biggest surprise has been learning the extent of the problem—how fragile and frightened children and young adults are today (while often acting knowing and entitled). I watched as so many of our Winter Olympics athletes folded after a setback. Coaches have complained to me that many of their athletes can’t take constructive feedback without experiencing it as a blow to their self-esteem. I have read in the news, story after story, how young workers can hardly get through the day without constant praise and perhaps an award. I see in my own students the fear of participating in class and making a mistake or looking foolish. Parents and educators tried to give these kids self-esteem on a silver platter, but instead seem to have created a generation of very vulnerable people.”
So, we have an improved understanding of what has happened – but not necessarily of how the thinking that drives such parenting behavior came to be. Regardless, it is what it is, and all we can do is change our future behavior. Here are some cogent words of advice from Dr. Dweck (again from the Highlights article):
- “Parents can also show children that they value learning and improvement, not just quick, perfect performance. When children do something quickly and perfectly or get an easy A in school, parents should not tell the children how great they are. Otherwise, the children will equate being smart with quick and easy success, and they will become afraid of challenges. Parents should, whenever possible, show pleasure over their children’s learning and improvement.”
- “Parents should not shield their children from challenges, mistakes, and struggles. Instead, parents should teach children to love challenges. They can say things like “This is hard. What fun!” or “This is too easy. It’s no fun.” They should teach their children to embrace mistakes, “Oooh, here’s an interesting mistake. What should we do next?” And they should teach them to love effort: “That was a fantastic struggle. You really stuck to it and made great progress” or “This will take a lot of effort—boy, will it be fun.“
- “Finally, parents must stop praising their children’s intelligence. My research has shown that, far from boosting children’s self-esteem, it makes them more fragile and can undermine their motivation and learning. Praising children’s intelligence puts them in a fixed mindset, makes them afraid of making mistakes, and makes them lose their confidence when something is hard for them. Instead, parents should praise the process—their children’s effort, strategy, perseverance, or improvement. Then the children will be willing to take on challenges and will know how to stick with things—even the hard ones.”
Dweck, C. Developing a Growth Mindset. Highlights Parents.com Interview http://www.highlightsparents.com/parenting_perspectives/interview_with_dr_carol_dweckdeveloping_a_growth_mindset.html
Hood, B. Mr Rogers is Evil According to Fox News. http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/mr-rogers-is-evil-according-to-fox-news/
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.
Mithers, C. Workplace Wars. Ladies Home Journal. http://www.lhj.com/relationships/work/worklife-balance/generation-gaps-at-work/