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Bronson and Merryman Talk to FBLA About How Not To Talk to Your Kids

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New York magazine’s cover story, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise by Po Bronson with Ashley Merryman, paints an all-too-common picture of kids so showered with praise that they’re drowning, not swimming.

FBLA asked Merryman how the story came about and she generously wrote us a fascinating account of the piece’s evolution. Read the whole thing, as it really spells out how they worked this story.

Po and I were working on a piece on the science of parenting, that had me I doing research on motivation and perceived competence–how kids become motivated and believe they are or aren’t competent. A lot of it seemed to have to do with their interaction with parents. That got me started thinking about praise, specifically. By then, I’d seen Carol Dweck’s work referenced, in varying contexts, so I tracked down some particular journal articles that she’d written. I read two main studies, and I flipped out.

I called Po and said,”I don’t care what else you are doing. Stop right now, and read this.” He said he was working and–I didn’t even let him finish his sentence.


I just insisted he read what I was sending him that very minute. Po and I email each other journal articles, talking about stuff we’ve read all day long, but rarely do I say anything like that. So he did. When the phone rang 20 minutes later, it was Po was yelling about what he’d just read. We both were. Could she be right? Could praising for intelligence be harmful? Honestly, because it was so different than everything we’d heard before, we didn’t want to rush into anything. It took days for us to keep talking about her work, testing it out, looking to see what other scholars were saying. I started going through every journal article on praise I could find; Po was talking to parents and others to see if they had heard anything about praise or Dweck. They reacted the same way Po and I had–stunned disbelief and insisting to want to know more.

I run a small tutoring program in the MidCity area of LA: Po has two young kids. We both started watching the kids to see if we could see any of the patterns of behavior Dweck had described. And we could. And we started talking to kids differently over-night. Well, we tried to, but old habits die hard, we realized changing the way we praise kids was harder for us, than it was for the kids. But nothing contradicted Dweck’s work; not the other scholars, not the parents, not the kids themselves.

When we told New York about it, they, too, had the same reaction we did.

By that point, Po started a series of interviews with Carol and other members of her team, who told us about their new study about to be published. If we hadn’t been sold by then (which we were), we were thrilled by the new findings. They proved and just extended her prior research to a new level. They took the theories out of the lab and applied them in schools, and it worked.

At the same time, I was still reading about motivation and self-esteem. And instead of articles advocating building self-esteem, I saw scholars arguing that efforts to build self-esteem harm motivation. Basically, if you believe you’re great, then you aren’t motivated to do anything new. Instead, it’s all about image-maintenance – which is exactly what Carol was saying was happening to the kids who’d been praised for intelligence. A few more journal articles down the road, and I found self-esteem scholars coming to the same sorts of conclusions that Carol had.

Then I found Roy Baumeister’s work, a meta-analysis of self-esteem studies, and that too blew me out of the water. His team proved that everything I’d heard about self-esteem was wrong. It didn’t increase academic or career achievement. Intervention programs to build self-esteem backfired–domestic abusers beat their wives more after a class to build their self-esteem. In one study, college students who were getting low grades received esteem-building emails: their grades went down even further. All of that just further supported Dweck–the idea that labels and self-image are overwhelmingly powerful.

Once we were working on the piece, it was just more of the same. We’d interview parents, and, once they’d heard about the research, they would tell us right during the interview they were immediately going to change how they spoke to their kids. They couldn’t wait to read the whole piece, to learn more–they wanted us to pop down to their playgroups the next day to start talking about it with other families. Scholars who didn’t know about Dweck asked us to send them her journal articles. Teachers said they would incorporate her work into their curriculum. Scholars who knew her work would just tell us how groundbreaking it was, how much of an impact they were hoping it would have; they were literally thanking us for writing this story – helping Carol get the word out. It was absolutely amazing.

We’re just so thrilled that it’s out there now, being read and discussed, and we really hope it keeps going. And in the meantime, Po’s about to pick up his kids from school, and I’ve got Tutoring tonight. So the article won’t be on our minds — but the ideas about praise certainly will be.

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