Praise can be a powerful thing, and so can telling it like it is. David McCullough Jr., a high school teacher and son of Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, recently made headlines for his commencement address to the students of Wellesley High School. His message? You’re not special. While the sound of that might sound extremely harsh and unwarranted, especially given the setting, he eloquently and humorously made the case for the argument that kids are in general overprotected, underachieving, and – average.
McCullough Jr. extends such commencement advice as:
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and you bay Aunty Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”
Those words might be uncomfortable to hear (I admit my maternal cape started to ruffle itself a bit). But it is also obvious that McCullough wanted to get the attention of these kids – these graduating adults who are entering the real world. He goes on to condemn their childhoods as, “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted,” and “bubble wrapped.” McCullough doesn’t do this to slam or simply rag on the kids and damper their futures – he does this because it really is the truth. Children are catered to and hand-held, and then we suddenly spring them forth unto the world.
“Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks…”
These numbers that outline just how humbling and average high school graduation is also serve to remind us as parents about our roles in preparing our children for life beyond school. He goes on to say:
“I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.” And he cheers for them to live, experience, and embrace life and all that it offers. It is in the effort.
The Differences Between Praise for Effort and Intelligence
Could it be that McCullough knows what the research says about the small, yet significant difference between praising our children for their intelligence as compared to praising them for their efforts? He didn’t tell them they were all wonderfully capable and extraordinary people – he told them they needed to go now and put forth effort.
- Emphasizing to children that they are smart makes them feel that this is a natural characteristic much like eye color or shoe size. Children aren’t given any tools for responding to failure if they are simply told, “You are so smart!” by well-meaning adults.
- Children who are consistently told they are intelligent also tend to put out less effort. In fact, displaying effort might indicate that there is a lack of natural ability, and children learn a backwards lesson that putting forth effort means you aren’t capable enough.
- One interesting study by psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer showed that by age 12, children feel that when teachers praise them it is actually a signal that the teacher lacks confidence in their ability and they need more encouragement.
- In contrast, when children are praised for their efforts, studies show that they will continually strive for more. They try harder on future applications and expend more energy, especially when the praise is specific and direct.
- Praise by emphasizing effort gives children something they can control and perhaps just the right motivation to keep trying.
While there were critics of McCullough’s speech, that it was too harsh and demeaning, he really did deliver a targeted message on the power of effort. He concluded his speech by encouraging the graduates to
“Climb it [the mountain] so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfaction they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion – and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone one is. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”
We need to teach our children as McCullough encourages, to not think of themselves as inherently capable and “all that”, but as work in progress, and work requires effort. If we stop at telling our children that they are amazing and wonderful, they won’t know how to handle roadblocks and challenges that make them feel less than expertly capable. They won’t know how to climb those mountains.