Last summer, my family was on vacation with another family, and in the midst of playing paddle ball on the beach, our friend’s 8-year-old daughter exclaimed, “Practice makes pretty good.” At the time, I remember thinking that was a cute alternative to the phrase we all grew up hearing. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think there is a critical lesson to be gleaned for all of us who work with young people.
It is fairly common knowledge that children hear just about everything said around them. We’ve all probably wished in hindsight we hadn’t said something after hearing little voices repeating our words. Our language and specifically our attributions and value judgments have a profound impact in shaping children’s impressions of themselves and their world.
Researchers, such as the psychologist Carol Dweck, have studied and written extensively about the power and danger of words (and specifically praise). It is human nature to fall back on the familiar and known, and individuals tend to nurture and guide youth in the same way they were raised and nurtured. This fact, despite generally good intentions, often leads caring and committed professionals to say and do things that can have an adverse impact on development.
Let’s look at the widely used phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” as an example. Many of us grew up being told if we practiced long and hard, we’d master a desired skill or activity. Many of you reading this column may have repeated these words to encourage children not to give up on a challenging task. Unfortunately, if we take the time to really think about the phrase, we realize we’re not being completely honest with ourselves or the children we are trying to encourage.
In many instances, practice can lead to exceptional play, improved technique, or a more consistent level of performance. While the improvement can be exponential, it does not equate to perfection. In fact, depending on the activity and the individual participant, frequently no amount of practice will lead to perfection. And, more surprisingly, even individuals who appear to be a great match for a given activity (based on a combination of talent/interest/support) at times struggle to even become proficient after years of practice. For example, Shaquille O’Neal finished his storied 21-year NBA career making just below 53 percent of his free throws (REF – Basketball Reference.com - http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/o/onealsh01.html). Does anyone honestly believe that was due to a lack of practice or effort? Of course not. It’s just a quick example demonstrating that frequently no amount of practice leads to perfection.
We Are What We Perceive
So, what does Shaq’s less-than-stellar free-throw effort teach us about what we say and show to young people? We’ve all heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the reality is that in many cases an individual’s expectations and explanations of events or results do have a very real effect on future successes and failures.
So, when we tell children that practice makes perfect, we’re literally telling them that if they practice enough, they’ll perfect a desired skill. In general, children are incredibly trusting of adults, but at the same time they are incredibly proficient at recognizing and learning from patterns. Most children will believe a coach, parent, or teacher who tells them that “practice makes perfect,” and they will work hard for a time believing they can do anything they set their mind to. Eventually, though, they will recognize that despite their efforts, they're not approaching perfection and will likely begin to become less confident in their potential and perhaps less motivated to continue practicing the skill. In addition to losing motivation, children will also remember that the adult doesn’t always tell the truth and the child/adult relationship may suffer.
In Other Words
First, to be clear, if you’ve ever used the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” it’s highly unlikely you’ve caused irrevocable harm. I’m using that phrase as a general example of the power of words to affect an individual’s thoughts and perceptions. It is my hope that by drawing attention to what we do and say you and your staff will be mindful in interactions and conversations with youth.
Let’s look at a second example related to praise and the psychological research I referenced earlier in the article. Anyone who has ever coached, taught, or supported someone in a new endeavor has at some point said something like, “Wow, you’re really good at ____!” Again, this nice-sounding and well-meaning phrase can have some unintended and adverse impacts on a child’s developing sense of self and ability.
By telling a child he or she is really good at something, the message that may be received is that the talent or ability is fixed and in many ways beyond the child’s control. Think about a child who passes a beginner swim test with flying colors. A well-meaning instructor says, “Wow, you’re really good at freestyle and floating.” For the next test, the child is asked to perform the backstroke and put his or her face completely under the water. The second test does not go well. What is the child to think about an ability to backstroke and go under water? He or she may believe that while they’re good at freestyle and floating they’re not so good at backstroke and floating. Returning to our earlier example, if a person doesn’t believe there is a reasonable likelihood of success, the motivation to continue trying may be lost. In this case, it might be very difficult to convince the child to continue trying to work on the backstroke or putting one’s face in the water.
Now, let’s take the previous example and change a few words. After the first successful test, the instructor says, “Wow, you worked really hard on your freestyle and floating.” The second test doesn’t go well, but this time when the child thinks about the ability to go under and backstroke, instead of attributing the failure to lack of ability, it becomes a question of effort and persistence. That is something that can be controlled and the child will likely have gained some experience in persevering in other areas. In this case, it probably won’t be so difficult to convince the child to jump back in and keep working.
Say What You Really Mean
The bottom line is that everyone regardless of age wants to succeed, and we've evolved to continually evaluate why we succeed and why we fail. As adults working with young people, we are in a great place to help shape children’s thinking about their abilities and to help them recognize the value of effort, while at the same time avoiding the fostering of the unrealistic expectation that they can master everything they try. I encourage all of you to be mindful of your words and actions, to say what you really mean, and the next time a youngster is struggling to learn something new, to remind the individual that in almost every case, “Practice makes pretty good.”
Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.