In praise of the ordinary child

A warning against overstating a child's ability

There is a big difference between self- esteem and self-confidence. And this is becoming glaringly obvious in America's youngest generation. Dr Carol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford, recently studied a group of 11-year-olds, the so-called Generation Zero, examining their attitudes towards success and their own intelligence. The results betray an alarming gap between self-belief and reality.

Dweck discovered that the parents of most of these children had told them, from birth, that they were extremely clever. Apparently 85 per cent of American parents tell their children, "You're so smart!" every day. Consequently, the children make little effort to demonstrate their intelligence. Why should they? They know they are the greatest, so why bother to prove it?

They chose easy tests in which they knew they would score highly. They rated effort as the preserve of the sad and hopeless - so they often did worse in tests they could have passed easily if they had actually tried. They were prepared to lie about their grades to maintain the illusion of genius. Give these kids a few self-help books for Christmas, and they would believe they were the masters of the universe. Maybe such la-la-land intellectual weakness is a crafty intelligence in itself, but it is not a useful one. It certainly doesn't bode well if any of these mediocrities choose politics as a career. We can safely assume that the pursuit of power will be the most popular calling in future decades, as the children seem to believe that they are indeed The Chosen One.

The danger, says Dweck, is that children who believe they are naturally clever start to think they have nothing to learn. "You have to teach students that they are in charge of their intellectual growth," she says. Let them understand that, in order to get anywhere, they will have to work hard. Children who identify with statements such as "I always try hard and I don't give up" tend to achieve more and do better, regardless of innate ability. They also have a more balanced view of themselves - true self-esteem, rather than false, puffed-up self-confidence.

This has fascinating repercussions for that conundrum so characteristic of rampant capitalism. As a society - and this is as true for Britain as it is for the United States - we are all always being encouraged to believe that we're "worth it".

Our self-esteem should be at a historic high. So why is depression increasingly common? Dweck has an answer. The children in her studies get disproportionately depressed when they find out that, in the words of the song, they are not as smart as they would like to think they are. If they are forced to take a difficult test and get a bad result, they think, "Maybe I'm not smart, I'm stupid," instead of thinking, "I had a bad day. I'll try harder next time." In other words, they may start out thinking they are prodigy-level, but life will be one long reality check. Just wait for the new complaints on the therapist's couch: "My parents told me I was fabulous, the bastards."

This yearning for proof that our children are amazing is a recent phenomenon. Once, children were taught to put up and shut up, and certainly not display their knowledge of 150 world capitals at the age of four (as one teacher recently told me a proud parent had trained his son to do). Being seen and not heard is no kind of childhood, but neither is a hothouse atmosphere of worship, delusion and quiz-show-style feats of memory.

We are all versed in the dangers of overcompensating for parental guilt by bribing our children with toys and treats. But how many of us do the same emotionally? All that children really want from their parents is time. All they get instead is an avalanche of plastic goods and assurances that they are super-intelligent.

This is a recipe for a disappointing life, Dweck argues. It is also counter-productive: any latent talents that children possess will be quashed by the belief that they needn't make any effort as they are already so brilliant. "Many of our most illustrious geniuses in every field were people who were considered ordinary as children - from Darwin, to Coleridge, to Cézanne," says Dweck. "All of these people were not necessarily extraordinary children."

This is not really about the children: it's about the parents. In part they want boasting material and a guarantee that their child is "special". But most of all they want a pat on the back. Some adults who don't spend as much time with their family as they should want to show that they have done the best by their child. Similarly, some who do nothing but spend their time with their family live vicariously through the success of their offspring. It is troubling that parents should need such reassurance.

Dweck's research shows that overencouragement, like too many toys, is not healthy. Give children time and love, not the conviction that they are some sort of genius. In truth, there is nothing worse for a child than the curse of being anything other than ordinary.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Nation of fools