Answer these two questions in your mind:
Are you good at math?
Could you be terrific at math?
Chances are if you’re a woman, even if you forced yourself to say yes, you probably thought no to both–even though, the answer to at least the second one actually is yes. Honestly, I thought “not really” and “define ‘terrific’” even though I am objectively and verifiably
pretty good at math (killing me to not undercut that good!) and even though I know the answer to the second question for most people including me is yes.
By now it’s widely known that children are heavily influenced by the type of praise they receive. Carol Dweck’s research on using childhood praise to create a growth mindset has been widely covered. I love the way Dweck compares praise for achievement or ability to junk food. Kids love it. ”You’re so smart/talented/good at math!” tastes great in the moment, but she says, “It’s bad for them.” If they are constantly praised for their abilities, then any failure challenges their view of themselves as smart/talented/good at math. Soon they’re avoiding activities that they can’t be immediately good at in order to preserve their identity as smart/talented/good at math. They also develop a conception of intelligence and talent as a rigid, innate gift which cannot be increased beyond what a person is born with.
As much as I roll my eyes whenever I hear that men and women need different products (Please read the customer comments on a new brand of pens called Bic for her, for your entertainment), in this case it’s actually true. Girls are more susceptible to ability praise and to believing their abilities are fixed than boys, especially when it comes to math. When I heard of the research that shows women do worse on tests when they’re forced to check a gender box beforehand, I could only hear the voice of that stupid teen Barbie that was recalled amid horrific backlash saying, “Math class is tough.”
Ability praise, like junk food, is particularly bad when it comes as a replacement for the nourishment of process praise. Process praise sounds lame: “I’m so proud of how hard you worked to figure it out.” “The more you practice, the better your backhand is getting.” Brussels sprouts? Broccoli? Bletch. If my husband started telling me “The more you practice, the better you are getting at doing your hair” instead of “You are so beautiful,” he would never get…you know. Anyway….
As lame as it sounds, process praise works. Says Dweck, “Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later.” Children who crave challenge turn into adults who live bravely, overcome failure and believe they can improve their abilities.
My wonderful mother brought me up in the self-esteem epidemic which taught that all children needed to succeed was belief in their innate abilities. I constantly heard “you’re so smart/talented/good at ___.” And even though I hate to be a predictable type, I am a typical girl. I think of myself as computer illiterate and limited at math. Both of which are untrue and certainly do not have to be true. Worse, I catch myself thinking of Fluffy’s goodness at math as a fixed quantity. Working with Fluffy on her daily math lessons, I find myself trying to answer the question “Is she good at math or not so great?” as though the answer were a definitive part of her character instead of thinking “she could be terrific at math.” That bologna ends now.
I slip up plenty with the ability praise as well–and the junk food. Being a fun mom is so much easier than being a good mom. I’ll keep trying to be a good mom and a fun mom in the best ways. Fluffy and the Chiefs deserve both.