"I don't want a gifted child... Instead, I want to teach my daughters to fail successfully."
Gifted children are, it seems, common as muck.
Schools, particularly those located in, or catering to children hailing from the leafier suburbs, have special programs for gifted kids. I've even heard stories of anxious parents badgering their kid's preschool teachers with questions about whether their children's stick figure drawings indicate a superior level of development than other children.
Me? I don't want a gifted child. Instead, I want my kids to be successful failures. More precisely, I want to teach my daughters to fail successfully.
If that sounds perverse, even damaging, to their future prospects, there is a method to my madness.
There is some research to suggest that labelling kids as gifted or talented could be stunting our best and brightest. In her book Mindset, for example, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck shows how applying labels like 'gifted' and 'talented' can train children who have potential to limit their own efforts.
In one study, Dweck and her colleagues tested students with a non-verbal IQ test. One group who did well were praised in a way that linked their success on the test to their innate ability. 'Wow, you got [say] eight right. That's a really good score. You must be smart at this,' the students were told.
Other students who received the same score were praised, but this time their success was linked to effort rather than their natural talent. 'You must have worked really hard' they were told.
While the student's scores were roughly even, their responses to an invitation to take on new and more challenging tasks differed markedly. Those students who were praised for their innate abilities were less likely to take on the new task. By contrast, 90 per cent of the students who were praised for their efforts took on the more challenging task.
Dweck argues that the reason for the difference is that talented kids are unwilling to do new things that might expose that they're not as talented as everyone has assumed. Being told that you're gifted or talented becomes a fixed character trait— one that you feel you need to live up to everytime, lest you be called out as a fraud.
And the bad news doesn't end with self-sabotage. Dweck recounts studies and the odd case study where talented and gifted children lie about their performance so as to maintain the appearance of innate ability. Rather than being shown to be less capable than they're supposed to, children resort to fibbing about their performance.
As Dweck writes 'telling children they're smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don't think this is what we're aiming for when we put positive labels—"gifted," "talented," "brilliant"—on people.'
Against this backdrop, teaching kids to fail well is arguably a more useful life skill than being labelled a prodigy. There is an important difference between being told you're a failure and being able to fail well.
A failure is an all-encompassing identity. Being called a failure is likely to mean that you lower your expectations. It often means that you never try, or don't try very hard because the outcome is, in your mind at least, pre-determined. Like 'gifted' or 'talented', being tagged a 'failure' is a fixed character trait.
Teaching your child to fail well doesn't mean you're willing your child to fail. Rather, it's about thinking through failure. Doing so teaches children that to fail is just that: you tried something, it didn't work out, so try something else. It doesn't define you as a human being.
It's also more realistic. If there is one thing you can count on in life, it's that you will fail at something at sometime. Being able to put that into perspective and adapt to that is more useful than the delusion that you will succeed at everything,everytime.
Of course, some people prefer to call this feedback. One piece of self-help 'wisdom' is that there is no such thing as failure —there's only feedback. While that's nice in theory, the real world doesn't operate like that. Failing to get a job or a promotion sure doesn't feel like feedback. Or, if it is feedback, it's hard to take it as anything other than "You failed".
Failing well means re-thinking how you do things and trying a different path. Or, it may mean giving up entirely and trying something else instead. The early rounds of reality TV talent shows like X Factor and Australia's Got Talent are full of hopefuls who should have never been encouraged to sing or perform beyond their bedroom.
I want empower my daughters with the belief that their success in life is far more dependent on their courage and determination, than the genes they inherited from their mother and me.