Published on 27 Feb 2023

Praising kids for every little thing will only ruin them

Why is it so hard to be bad at something?

We appear to live in a world of instant success. When you do not look good in your photo, there is Photoshop or a filter that softens the light and takes the kilos off your face.

If you cannot write an essay, artificial intelligence (AI) engine ChatGPT from Silicon Valley-based company, OpenAI, can write it for you. You just have to provide the engine with the specific topic and number of words, and it will do the rest.

Ask the same question twice, and you will get two different essays. It is an examiner's nightmare.

While watching YouTube, we are bombarded by advertisements of investment gurus promising to make us expert real-estate investors after taking a short and easy course.

Even if you don't watch the advertisements, you are prompted with video suggestions of how you can learn to do pull-ups, speak a new language or even play a musical instrument, all by watching a short video.

As young children, we never chased instant success. We were happy to fall, hurt ourselves and make mistakes as we learnt the life skills needed to navigate the world.

Imagine an infant taking a YouTube course to learn how to walk in a day? Or a child learning how to ride a bicycle in five minutes? That would be ridiculous.

Falling, doing it badly and practising until we get better is part of the rhythm of life.

So how do children unlearn their natural inclination to learn?

Professor Carol Dweck from Stanford University has studied this issue over the last 30 years. She blames the self-esteem movement for praising kids even when they have done nothing worthy of praise, resulting in praise being cheapened.

She believes that the problem with undeserved praise is that kids become addicted to it and start to seek it. This is made worse when parents label their kids as "smart" for doing something without putting in much effort. More On This Topic Minor Issues: No easy solutions to school refusal for kids on autism spectrum Minor Issues: The value of grandmothers' stories

Over time, a success myth results, where kids get hooked on low-effort success. This, in turn, discourages kids from trying new things and being bad at anything, lest they are seen as anything other than smart.

The hard truth is that what is worth learning is going to take more than a day.

In Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book, Outliers, he suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills like playing the violin or being as competent as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at computer programming.

This works out to 3½ years of consistent practice for eight hours each day.

Interestingly, Mr Gates has commented on the 10,000 hours rule popularised by Gladwell, emphasising that you cannot just spend the time, you need to be "fanatical enough to keep going" and to keep practising until you achieve the desired level of competency to be successful.

According to Prof Dweck, people who are unwilling to put in the time to hone new skills and learn new things have a "fixed mindset".

Such people believe that success is based on innate ability, meaning that if you fail or are bad at something, it is confirmation that you do not have what it takes to be good at it.

Conversely, people with a "growth mindset" believe that failures are part of learning, and if they just keep trying, they can get better over time. These are the individuals who are willing to go through a phase where they are bad at something, but by applying the fanaticism that Mr Gates had shown in practising programming, eventually acquire skill mastery.

The world now is changing fast, as technologies like robotics and AI seep into every part of human life.

Technology is ever improving, with each upgrade being incorporated into all existing installations of technology via the cloud.

How will humans be able to compete with ever improving technologies if we do not similarly embrace our own continuous improvement, building on innate human strengths in creativity and thoughtful analysis?

Learning how to learn has been a mantra for our family since our kids were young. My wife and I would often encourage our kids to try new skills, musical instruments and sports.

It was perfectly fine if they were terrible at it to begin with. The intent was always to expose them to a wide range of experiences for them to get a sense of what they wanted to pursue further.

Taking Prof Dweck's advice, we avoided praising our kids as smart when they were growing up, instead choosing to reinforce their openness to trying new things. We kept our most effusive praise for times when they put in extraordinary effort into skill and competency acquisition.

As parents, it has sometimes been painful watching the kids struggle as they sought to acquire new skills and knowledge.

We had to constrain our desire to swoop in and take away the pain and solve their problems, especially in the initial phases. At times when the kids were particularly discouraged, my wife would strengthen our resolve by saying, "if they don't struggle, they don't grow". More On This Topic Minor Issues: Our daughter got her first holiday job by herself - and it turned out okay Minor Issues: Be open to learning new things in the new year

In many ways, their struggle is similar to how a chick breaks out from an egg.

The hatching process sometimes takes up to 24 hours and there are many periods when nothing seems to be happening for the chick in the egg. The mother hen that helps the chicks crack out of their eggs actually sows the seeds of doom as these chicks become weak and unviable later on in life.

There is something about the mind such that when skill mastery is acquired, you forget the pain and suffering that you went through to get to that level of competency.

We have seen this in our kids as they have picked up musical instruments and programming and other skills over the years.

A side benefit of raising kids with a growth mindset is that it prepares them for the workplaces of the future.

Prof Dweck's research in the workplace has shown that staff with a growth mindset have more trust in their colleagues as they see them as collaborators in achieving complex objectives, as opposed to seeing colleagues as competitors for rewards or incentives.

In addition, staff with a growth mindset seem more willing to take risks and innovate at companies rather than just confining themselves to what they know and can do well.

We have seen how a developing growth mindset has helped our kids to adjust better to workplace settings during the internships they have taken on while still in school.

When starting in a new work environment, they expect that they will be bad at it in the beginning. But they believe that if they put in effort, they will be able to adjust to the environment and acquire the mastery and familiarity needed to be successful in their internships.

Our kids are not there yet and sometimes give up long before they achieve mastery. But isn't that what we parents are there for? To comfort them when things seem difficult, and to encourage them when they feel that they do not want to press on further.

For me, it is a "no regret" decision to continue to develop a growth mindset in our kids to help them take on the challenges of recessions, technology substitution and job disruptions that they will inevitably encounter in their lifetimes.

• Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.


Source : The Straits Times