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Praising Children vs Praising Programmers

In a comment on my blog post titled Childhood, Don Marti refers to an earlier blog post he wrote which refers to a New York Magazine article about the effects of praising children. The article does in some depth to describe scientific research into the issue of praising children for being “smart” vs praising them for working hard – with the conclusion being that it’s significantly better to praise them for working hard!

One quote from that article that I find very significant is “Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that ‘when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves’“. This matches my theory about people who subject their children to TV documentaries about gifted children.

The conclusions regarding children seem quite clear and the article provides direct advice to parents and teachers as to how to avoid the problems.

One issue I am wondering about after reading the NYM article is whether being exposed to smarter children hurts a child’s learning ability. The fact that there is no correlation between high self-esteem and learning ability has been proven, but the reports do not indicate whether there might be a correlation between a decreases in self-esteem and a decrease in learning ability. I recall pointing out to one the few good teachers at high-school that having some of the most capable and some of the least capable students in the same class was inefficient and led to excessive boredom for the more capable students and excessive difficulty in keeping up for the less capable students. I was told that “streaming” was considered bad because it was bad for the less capable students to know their status. I was also refused access to my results of the Westpac Maths contest for the same reason – which seems particularly strange, I was in the training program for the International Mathematical Olympiad so I doubt that releasing my score from one maths contest would change anyone’s opinion of my ability.

I am also wondering about how this effects adults (apart from their education history). Should we try to praise work colleagues for their effort instead of being smart? Are adults discouraged from trying hard at their work when they see others succeeding with little apparent effort?

One data point for this seems to be kernel coders in the Linux community. Everyone sees super-star Linux kernel coders on stage (on a pedestal) at conferences and it’s easy to believe that such people are significantly more intelligent than others (the well-known programmers are indeed very smart – but they also work a lot harder than most people believe) and that being so smart is a necessary pre-condition for submitting Linux kernel patches. I have met many people who appear to have the ability to be good at any type of coding but seem intimidated by kernel coding it for these reasons. Statements such as “I’ve been doing Linux coding for 10 years but I’m not a kernel coder” are often heard at Linux conferences. Also people who’s skills are respected are often regarded as kernel coders without any real reason.

The Linux kernel is a large C program with limited options for a debugger, if you are good at C coding you should do OK! I know that I am trivialising the issues related to kernel coding, there are some tasks such as reverse-engineering device-drivers and debugging some of the tricky race conditions that require special skills – but no-one is born with such skills! I would not suggest that someone try a significant kernel coding task on their first attempt – as with all areas of programming it’s best to start with the easy things first. The web site kernelnewbies.org is a good source of information for people who are getting into kernel coding.

I wonder whether a change in the attitudes towards such things could encourage more people to write free software, and more of the current programmers to attempt new challenges (such as kernel coding).

4 comments to Praising Children vs Praising Programmers

  • Alex

    by encouraging people you can get them to do things they wouldn’t have believed they’re capable of achieving…
    but the coach benefits from it, too.
    on one hand that leads to a world where, with the right aid, every individual can do almost whatever he/she wants. on the other hand we still have inequality regarding the homes they grow up in, the educational system… and the barriers in peoples minds.
    self-esteem is probably the most important part in achieving success. someone who is deeply depressed probably won’t work at all.

    you’re right, sometimes we have to cross the barriers in our heads to find a new area for intellectual creativity. it’s just that these borders are often well-protected by those who already found that space ;-)

    keep telling people that they can do what they want, that it’s not that hard to push your limits further. than they can see for themselves whether or not they give it a try. i went to the guadec this summer and i study educational sciences. it was really nice to be there as most of the geeks were really helpful, tolerant and friendly.

    at school it’s a totally different thing. all the kids are being told that it’s all about high grades. you should take a look at the ideas on education by peter petersen. he wanted school to be open. parents were allowed to come, the kids could go wherever they wanted and they were supposed to help each other and work together instead of competing with each other. he wanted mentally disabled and very smart children to profit from each other, regarding knowledge and soft-skills. the teachers’ function was to supervise the process and help if the students couldn’t accomplish their work.

    i really hope that you can encourage people to take a look at new areas of operations ’cause the best that can happen to human beings is to get rid of their lack of confidence ;-)
    by the way, i believe that success is a combination of being smart and hard-working. if einstein for ex. had sat at home, smoking pot, eating cookies instead of working so hard on his ideas… he probably wouldn’t have achieved a thing.

  • Ben

    Interesting reading, as was you’re post on gifted child programs.

  • craig

    IMO, praise and promoting self-esteem are way over-rated. it leads to mediocrity – why bother even attempting excellence when a piss-poor effort will get the child all the praise that it could possibly want, and more?

    acknowledgement of effort is fine, refraining from actually undermining a kid’s self-esteem is great, but praise for the “achievement” of existing is counter-productive. praise should be reserved for excellence, otherwise it has no value…worse, it has negative value.

  • Just a note that in the future you will be able to comment on articles like these via the New York Magazine website and authors of said articles will have the ability to chime in.