The Downside of Always Telling Kids to Work Harder

It's now a famous construct: when we praise children for being smart, we are indirectly teaching them that success is due to their innate intelligence. They become fixated on "looking smart," and when they run into difficulty, they privately conclude that they're simply not smart enough. They don't have what it takes after all.

The solution, according to Carol Dweck, is to praise them for their hard work. Focusing on effort gives children a variable they can control, dialing it up when necessary.

No country was more off-track on praise than the U.S. However, once people heard Dweck's argument, it was widely accepted. American lore has always celebrated the capacity to transform one's life through hard work. Dweck's argument aligned perfectly─anyone and everyone can apply themselves and work harder if they choose to do so.

But is this reality? Does everyone really have the same capacity to work hard?

In truth, some people seem to work harder than others─no matter the assignment, project, or task. Those who are hard workers certainly demonstrate the ability to work even harder. They can dial it up. But some people seem to be comparatively lazy. They almost never dial it up. At some point in their lives, they forgot they have control over this variable.

The easy explanation for this learned helplessness is that when their achievement personality was forming, as children, the role of effort wasn't appropriately pointed out to them. Their parents and teachers and role models weren't able to convince them that hard work pays off.

But I've been rethinking that explanation because of some fascinating research out of China.

Most Asian cultures have always emphasized effort. In these collectivist societies, kids are not taught to explore their differences; instead, society wants them to believe they were all born roughly the same. The only reason some succeed when others don't is how hard they work.

But kids don't completely buy it. According to Dr. Keng-Ling Lay's work in China, and Dr. Katherine Yip's work in Singapore, many Asian children are similar to American children in believing that you must be born smart to succeed. The idea of "innate intelligence" still permeates their culture. Sure, effort helps too. Especially if you're not born smart.

And that's where it gets really interesting.

Dr. Lay has been applying Dweck's constructs to Chinese high-schoolers, and she's noted a peculiarity. Many Chinese students have come to believe that their ability to work hard is a fixed character trait─not a variable under their control.

As Lay explains it, these children have been told their whole lives that they can do better if they only worked harder. But many kids, despite giving it their best for a decade, never become successful. They never get A's in school. They never get praised by parents or teachers. So they've concluded that they're simply incapable of working hard enough. They blame their nature, their innate personality. They believe they don't have what it takes─neither smarts nor industriousness. They come to accept that they can't dial it up.

In Lay's research, these students are prone to feeling like failures, and they suffer from very high levels of depression.

So, even in a culture that preaches effort, kids can forget that effort is under their control. What's going on?

First, this is part of a larger phenomenon that doesn't just relate to China or effort. Kids have a tendency to make premature judgments about what they're good at and what they aren't. They're protecting themselves. Saying "I'm not athletic," is a way to downplay expectations and avoid embarrassment or repeated failure. The same goes for: "I'm shy," "I'm not creative," and "I'm not good at math." They perceive their weakness as fixed traits beyond their control: there's no point trying, because in these realms there's no hope.

According to Lay, the risk of this happening is compounded in Chinese schools where there's a culture of criticism, rather than a culture of praise. Children are made self-conscious of their failures, rather than praised for what they've done right.

Lay also adds, "Teachers in China don't give strategic help; they don't direct a student's attention to actual strategies that will help them do better. Instead, children just hear the global construct, 'You need to give more effort.'" They might study harder, but no more effectively.