The Secret of Immigrant Parenting

At the risk of invoking invidious stereotypes, Asian immigrants are often praised for their parenting prowess. Without stating it explicitly, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck explains exactly what’s going on.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

Now, I wasn’t exactly a high academic achiever until relatively late in my K-12 career. But I was no slouch. I think this might have been because my parents were underwhelmed by my innate intelligence, and they spent no time praising it. Instead, they gave me a hard time for lazing around the house, particularly my mother, who is easily one of the smartest and most hard-working people I know. To be sure, both of my parents were, despite not having intellectual jobs, intensely intellectual: they loved to learn and argue. And my father was by nature a Beatnik. Even so, the quality they both admired most in others was an impressive work ethic.

I think this all relates to Jim’s post on Culture G.