PopTech 2009: Ashley Merryman: Stop praising kids and put them to bed

Editor’s note: In all the excitement of liveblogging PopTech 2009, this post was written and wasn’t published. We apologize for the oversight, and extend our congratulations to Ashley and Po on their book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, being included on SEED Magazine’s “Books to Read (and Give) Now” list published today. Below is Ethan’s liveblogging of Ashley’s PopTech talk; video of her talk will be available in 2010.

Ashley Merryman

has been a litigation attorney, a speechwriter for the Clinton administration and director of a school tutoring project. And she’s a journalist, with work in the Washington Post and the National Catholic Reporter. Two years ago, she began collaborating with journalist Po Bronson on an award-winning series of articles, blogposts and a book titled
Nurture Shock. The series challenges thinking about the best ways to raise and nurture children, challenging preconceptions with emerging science. Andrew Zolli discovered her work through an influential article in New York Magazine.

Merryman tells us that the article she and Po were supposed to write for New York Magazine was on ambition. Interviewing architects and other overachievers, they told her, “I’ve always known I was ambitious – I had two part time jobs when I was two years old!” They embraced the folklore version of ambition.

She wondered, what if they were right? What’s the key to motivating a kid? Her breakthrough was finding, and sharing with Po, a study by Carol Dweck, a social scientist then based at Columbia on the effects of praise and motivation on kids. The study examined a group of randomly assigned fifth graders. They were given an intelligence test. At the end of the test, half were told they’d done really well and were told " you must be really smart." The other set were praised and told, “you must have worked really hard.”

Then the kids were given a choice between two puzzles – an easy and a hard one. The majority of the kids praised for intelligence picked the easy one, while the majority of the ones praised for effort chose the hard one, the one they were told they’d learn from. Kids were then given a hard test, one designed for seventh graders. The kids who had been praised for intelligence were sweating and anxious as they bombed it, while the kids praised for hard work also bombed, but enjoyed the experience. A final test was the same difficulty as the initial test. The kids praised for intelligence had their scores drop 20% from the initial exam. Kids praised for hard work had a 30% increase. This effect was clearly demonstrated and linked to a single sentence of feedback.

Merryman wasn’t excited when she read this study. She was “terrified and angry”. The study was published in 1988. “If I’d known this, I would have done some things differently.” Merryman has been tutoring kids in LA for years, and “knew” that the right thing to do was to praise and reward these kids who’d have tough lives.

Parents believe it’s important to praise children for intelligence. California developed a task force on self-esteem, believing that we can “boost self-esteem and the confidence and intelligence will come along for the ride.” But the academic research is weak. A researcher examined may of the 15,000 studies on self esteem and intelligence conducted since the 1970s. He concluded that only 200 represented real science – the rest had interviewed people with high self estreem, who were happy to tell researchers that they were great people. The other studies asked their roommates and friends. And they concluded that self-esteem does not encourage achievement – it may retard it, because if you tell someone they’re great, they don’t improve.

“Kids wrapped in bubble wrap of praise and support.” But this isn’t always the right thing to do. Kids want people to care about them, not always to praise them.

What can we do? Merryman suggests we focus on a different, but related problem: sleep. 60% of high school students report extreme daytime sleepiness. One third of kids admit to sleeping in class once a week. Technology and media have an effect, but so does school busing – we send kids long distances to school on the 7am bus. As a result, 5% of kids get 8 hours of sleep. And growing teens need 9.25 hours. Below 8 hours of sleep, kids suffer double the mean level of clinical depression. And they perform more poorly – a study that asked kids to get half an hour of sleep less for three nights showed that sixth graders performed as fourth graders based on that very modest change in sleep schedules. On the average, A students get 15 minutes more sleep than B students – “every fifteen minutes counts”.

A study that encouraged college kids to go without sleep discovered that sleep is directly connected to emotion. Sleep deprived kids remembered 80% of depressing words in a list of words to memorize and only 30% of neutral ones. Sleep deprivation hits the memory more heavily than the parts of the brain that govern fight or flight – teen moodiness may actually be sleep deprivation.

Letting kids sleep more can work. Edina, MN moved its start time an hour later – the top 10% of graduating class went up 200 SAT points on a 1600 point scale. Furthermore, students reported that their quality of life improved. In Kentucky, a similar effort led to a major reduction in car accidents. “Sleep is a health issue. We can change kids’ lives – do we have the political force to make it happen?”

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