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Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation (1998) [pdf] (stanford.edu)
253 points by EvgeniyZh on Aug 5, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 155 comments

Thanks for this. Whenever I see a research that seems intuitive and also politically correct I like to see what the critics have to say.

nothing to add except that SSC is, bar none, my favorite blog on the internet

I tell my child she is smart AND that that isn't enough for us. We know she is smart, but so are we and we can tell when she is slacking and lying.

It's actually working very well, but it took quite a while for her to believe us. In the long run she is showing a deep appreciation for how honest we are with her.

This would likely work with most smarter children. If you don't play mind games with them they will stop trying to play mind games on you.

-- Edit on my side note here -- She still plays games with most other adults but I would be a hypocrite to try to eliminate it completely. Mostly I just caution her on how it erodes trust and trust is very valuable. Besides, most adults are not completely honest with her so it's only fair.

The developmental advice I've heard is that you should praise the act, not the attribute.

That is, if they do something clever, you praise the clever thing they did, not the fact that they're clever. I know that probably sounds like splitting hairs, but kids and adults have at least as many issues communicating as adults and other adults have.

It's not splitting hairs at all. "That's so clever" means "do something like that again to get praise". "You're so clever" means "you don't need to do any more work to be praised".

As adults we can often be imprecise in our praise of others and expect them to just understand that we meant it as a complement.

If you tell an adult 'wow you really are clever' it usually means that you appreciate what they did for you or the team and you're trying to say thank you too.

Really good approach, especially the part with the trust and the others lying to her as well.

I can confirm that. When i was child, every teacher said to me and my parents that i am so gifted, so smart. And i thought i am so smart that i don't need to spend so much time on school like others. So i missed on school a lot. In high school there were classes on which i was less than 50% throughout the semester. And it was ok, i needed only 2 last weeks to pass all the tests. In last year i did the same, again i needed to do tests because i had low grades and needed to pass whole semester on that tests. But this time there was a teacher of my native language (literature etc) and she told me "I know you will pass the test but you was more than 50% of time absent on my lessons i will not let you take test" and i was shocked. Why? Why she didn't let me take the test, i would pass it. And then headmaster of my school told my parents that "lot of kids are coming every day to school, they learn, they do homework for every class, they are hard workers and then there is your son, gifted, smarter than the rest, he only needs 2 last weeks to learn and pass the tests, he is not coming to class, he is not doing homework, how he looks in contrast to other students? What example he is giving to them? That you do not need to work hard, you only need to be gifted and smart and you can go by. There is no justice in this, we can't make that kind of example, showing that you do not need to come to school, make homework and still get promoted to next year like all those kids that come every day to school, are hard workers, learn, do homework". They didn't promoted me to next class, i needed to repeat it. That was the most valuable lesson i had in that school.

EDIT: What i wrote about lesson was not meant in a good way. As someone said in comments i was punished for being different - that was the lesson.

The lesson is that if you are too different people will go out of their way to punish you for it?

Yeah, I think it's a horrible lesson and a shame that too many people in powerful positions get away with it.

Yes, you should actually learn the material. No, you should not be punished for being gifted. The school should have recognized what they were dealing with, given you the test the second week and promoted you. Then perhaps you could have been challenged.

This whole "everyone has to go at the same speed" thing is what destroys gifted people.

You could have gone to college early, who knows maybe learned a lot and discovered a treatment or even a cure for many types of cancer or be the next great inventor.

Instead this school taught you to be mediocre and fit it.

What this school did to you and what it does to others is a travesty.

As a society we are destroying our most gifted people, simply so people "feel better"

That's a bullshit lesson though. You were held back because you made the system and the other kids look bad.

Turning up every day would have wasted your time, because you would have been bored and frustrated.

A good school would have forced you to turn up but would have let you run ahead at your own pace - or maybe moved you to an environment for the gifted.

Talent is rare and useful. Gifted kids should have the same boundaries and support as everyone else, but work challenges should be stretched in line with their abilities.

The lesson being: be normal and normal only, otherwise you will be made so, through intoleration, discrimination and assimilation. Public school system is for average people, and I don't mean anything hostile saying that. You are, on the base of your story here, above average in your intellectual capacity, and don't need to go through the chores others need to go through to succeed your class. There's nothing unjust about that, and your gift. Just like some people are more attractive, you're smarter.

I've been through similar situations (tho my breaking points have been more often and exaggerated) and quite quickly I've learnt to quack like an average guy, and to walk like an average guy, but to not be one, in school. I've always been a step ahead from my peers in learning quickly and in investing minimum time to get maximum output from my studies. So I just went to school and acted like the next guy, and did whatever I wanted (whatever being programming, literature, philosophy, etc.) in my spare time.

There is no justice in this, as the headmaster of your school said to your parents, some are just naturally more inclined to apprehension. Furthermore, some like doing it more than others. But sometimes educational staff feel the need to normalise the outliers, because they believe that the rest will believe that them themselves are idiots and won't engage. So they confine those outliers, the smarter ones, to normality, to the average, sacrificing them for the rest. Not only are their assumptions wrong, but the effects may be really bad on the students, dissuading them from exploiting their gifts in the future.

Some people are better at learning. Others are better at other things. Do we break the noses of very good-looking students in the school because they have unjust advantage in getting into relationships? Do we somehow shorten taller students because they score more baskets that the others? Do we deflate the breasts of more bustier students because other girls may get jealous of them? I'm sorry if I sounded a bit harsh and immodest. I don't claim that some are better overall than others, but they are better in some treats. But in situations like in your anectodes and in many experiences I myself had as an outlier, I've seen that this sort of practice leads to a missionary of reducing everybody to the lowest common denominator with regards to educational abilities, rendering public schools futile.

No need to apologize, you are 100% right.

Sometimes one needs to apologise for objective points to not be called 'uncivil'...

So you've been brought to norm, too.

The lesson they taught you is politically palatable to a lot of people, but it strikes me as gross. That it was the most valuable thing you learned in that school underlies just how pointless the entire exercise really was.

Not sure. The lesson for others that was being promoted by his behaviour was certainly bad: "That you do not need to work hard, you only need to be gifted and smart and you can go by." Now, it's not really his fault that he is not being challenged, so the school messed up, at least partly, here. They fixed the problem for the other students, but not for him. I think the point made in another comment, that he should have been made to attend classes, but given actual challenging work that matched his abilities, is correct.

At school I was probably similar, and thinking back basically an awful child, for much of the same reasons. But at least in some of my classes (maths, for example) they recognised that just following the standard course at the same pace as everyone else was a waste of my time, and allowed me to work on the course material for the next years classes, which was at least a little more interesting, and some kind of extra-curricular maths problems as part of an inter-school competition that were much more interesting.

OT - the maths problems didn't always hold my interest, and when I couldn't be bothered doing the actual work of proving something rigorously, I instead wrote a brute-force solver in PASCAL, that produced the correct solution. Then I had the challenging task of persuading people that this was actually an acceptable method of solving a problem. I can't remember if I succeeded, but I think I gave the example of the computer proof of the four-colour theorem that I had read about in New Scientist.

Agreed. This "lesson" is disgusting.

I've never understood the reasoning that administration and teachers put forth that the smart and "gifted" need to set an example for the other kids. A student is at school to be taught, not to set an example and teach the other kids. Every child has a right to learn. Teaching is what the teachers are for. If you were slacking off and still passing with minimal effort, they should have accelerated you to the point you could no longer do that without working at it. That would have better taught you the value of work in addition to not wasting years of your life. In my opinion, it's a crime that schools waste so much of the lives of intelligent children for no better reason than "but that's where a child of such age SHOULD be."

That is a fucked up school full of tools.

There was a gifted kid in my third grade. He was moved up one grade straight to 5, and again to 7 to finally match rest of the class.

While the response that GP got was wrong on my levels, what was done to that gifted kid was no favor either.

Anecdote warning: I've seen very few kids who skip more than a grade (if that) who have the ability to relate and function among peers well. They're not generally going to be accepted as a peer at that age by kids a couple-few years older than them - and for many, school is where that skill is learned.

Much of the research states otherwise. While there are certainly instances of your anecdote that do occur, the rule seems to be that higher achieving students function better with those at their level than with those beneath them. And, even then, the problem is temporary. The majority of those accelerated kids, when interviewed as adults indicated that they wish they had been accelerated soon or more, and that any social issues were temporary and fleeting.

That seems like a problem on another level.

The point of schools is not to teach you how to pass tests. It's to give you knowledge that sticks for life. Studying intensively for two weeks will let you (or mostly anybody, really) pass a test, but usually you will have forgotten most of it after a year. Attending class will give you delayed repetition of the material over a long period of time, which will help you remember.

How many nba players do you think spent years working on layups and nothing else? The push themselves. They work on what they're not good at yet, and in doing that, improve at the things they already are.

Spending years going to classes that do nothing but teach you things you have already mastered is not practice. It's torture. To improve retention and mastery you keep using the skills you've attained to greater effect. The compounding is what matters. Move too slowly and people shut down, tune out, and ignore the material. That's when material is forgotten.

Im curious to know how you could simply not go to school? Where I live it's compulsory. Smart or dumb, it doesn't matter, you go to school. I'm having a hard time understanding why they would just allow you to stay home in high school.

Did your parents agree with this way of schooling? That you were too smart to go to school? That's the only way I could see this happening. Did you study when you weren't at school, or did you simply chill out till test time?

In the US, at least, homeschooling is generally allowed. Some states don't have any requirements at all on who, how, and when a student can be homeschooled as long as a parent signs the right form. Some school districts let homeschoolers take a class or two without being fully enrolled.

For some students and some schools, being in school is actively bad for them, even worse than a fairly useless homeschooling experience. Some schools are just that bad.

The hard part is getting into college. You can take a test (the GED) that is meant to certify that you have an equivalent to a highschool education. Still, without a transcript, you will have to lean a lot on your resume (jobs, volunteering, internships) and personal statement.

at school I was always lazy and selected where to put in effort. If everyone in a math class was stuck on some problem that was when I was paid attention and listened and solved it. now I work as a programmer and feel like one my biggest advantages over everybody else is knowing what to be interested in and what to code.



I wanted to pass but there was this old guy with cane on the bridge saying "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!"

Putting a little TL;DR up here on top, because I'd really like to see folks' answers to this: What's the simple-language equivalent of, "You're so smart," or "That was so smart," but for intellectual effort?

Now, regularly scheduled thoughts :) :

What is a good, short method/word for praising effort?

with my 8.5-month old, "Good Job," specific variants on it ("Good Job climbing that staircase, tiny!") and such have worked wonderfully, but I seek something more-

It's so easy to praise a child's intelligence - "You're so smart!" "That's so clever!" - but much harder to praise effort, in my experience so far, because "I can tell you worked so hard to do that, that's so great!" just doesn't roll off the tongue very well! And this is important- "Good job!" is at the nexus of how I praise my little boy partially because he totally understand it. He's got that, even if he may not know the individual words exactly, he absolutely knows what Daddy means when, "Good job, baby!" comes out of daddy's mouth. I have VERY LOW FAITH that I could get, "I can tell you worked so hard to do that, that's so great!" to work the same!

(Incidentally, I also now feel I know more about why, in America at least, we often say, "I'm doing good," and variants thereof, instead of "I'm doing well." "Well" just isn't in the primal vocabulary quite as deeply, maybe because of its association with "Well, I was going to, but then I didn't," type of statements. "Good" is simple and meaningful, and I often find myself telling my son he's done something so "good," and then correcting myself a little, because, well, I want to teach him correct grammar, but more than that, I want to communicate with him meaningfully - and "good" gets a meaning across with which he's already familiar, while "well" does not, and has other common uses.)

So what's the simple-language equivalent of, "You're so smart," or "That was so smart," but for intellectual effort?

Maybe I need to invent a word for this and see if it catches on! :D

I've always said, "You're a hard worker" to my three kids. I've never told them they were smart and have emphasized how much more important hard work is over intelligence.

Oldest is 12 now, all three do very well.

I'm already working on getting my little one to go for the idea that intelligence == hard intellectual work, not innate ability, and "You're a hard worker!" is pretty good, and I think you for it!

I'm still searching for more, though, because "You're a hard worker," has actually been one of the things I've been trying, but it often feels- wrong. Stilted, like I'm trying too hard to teach instead of just sincerely offer the poor kid the damn praise. ;) Maybe I just need more practice, but I feel like there's room for improvement in the language there. :D :)

Talk about it. "That's great! Was it hard?"

This is great advice, but I'm not sure it hits the mark I'm trying to hit - I do already talk to my little guy about what things were hard vs. easy, and how much I admire his efforts, but there's a flow to interactions, especially with a small child - I'm looking for something I can use for a shorthand of this kind of conversation, because he totally loses interest if I just sit there and jabber for too long. If I want to impart any actual meaning, I have to be concise (though teaching him to pay attention longer is certainly also on the agenda- but again, can't try to do everything, every time, often there's just a brief moment, and I want to offer praise, it seems right logically to offer praise, it even FEELS right, but- am I then bound to have a whole conversation at that moment, or is there shorthand for the times when for his reasons or my own, I absolutely cannot?

I hear you, and my thought was to simply put the ball in their court. Perhaps they're too young to go beyond yes or no, I have no experience in parenting, but I thought it could signal interest in their experience and success to prepare for the time when they do respond with "yes! $reason..." If my parents had ever left the door open for me to say "that sucked!" things may have been different, but I'm sure as a parent you're full-up with advice based on psychological projection.

In light of all this, though, how about "Great, you're getting better!" It acknowleges the accomplishment, marks them as improving over the past, and implies there's more to do? Again, projection. :)

Seems like the simple, "Nice work!", fits the bill.

perhaps 'Good hustle'

Stop trying to game your kids.

Praise them whatever. Love, security, praise, attention, just go for it.

I doubt very much that all the noise around raising children can be filtered out to be able to differentiate between sentences.

Just raise kids with love and fun.

"Caplan argues that parents spend too much time trying to influence how their kids will turn out as adults. Using research on twins and adopted children, Caplan argues that nature dominates nurture and that parents have little lasting influence on many aspects of their children's lives. He concludes that parents should spend less time and energy trying to influence their children" [1]

[1]: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/05/caplan_on_paren.htm...

I get what you're saying - kids aren't code to be optimized with objective best practices. But on the other hand, it's very head-in-the-sand to think that parenting with the best intentions and love will always have a positive outcome. It's a good course of action for guaranteeing a happy childhood, but unless you're so affluent that your kids are assured a life on easy street, happiness isn't your only responsibility as a parent.

May be that love and fun is all the kids need to be both happy and successful, but maybe not: I had very hippyish parents who didn't go much beyond love and fun and blind support. Myself and my two siblings all had very happy childhoods, but only my very self-motivated sister wound up finding success and happiness as an adult right off the bat, took me a decade to get my footing, and my brother - who was unquestionably the happiest and most loved kid in the family - is a broken and miserable adult.

Ultimately it comes down to regarding your kids as individuals and tailoring your parenting to each kid, which is what this study is trying to help parents do w.r.t. smart kids.

"Stop trying to game your kids."

i really like that, nice and succinct.

i figure that the ways that i am which are outside of my control, or even my awareness, dwarf the ways i am that are within my control. my efforts to be a good parent are almost insignificant compared to, i don't know, my posture and facial expression while speaking with the cashier at the grocery store, and all the other things like that.

maybe your last sentence should be, "Just raise kids with love and fun, and work on your own damn self."

Khalil Gibran: "Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite.

And He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hands be for happiness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

So He loves the bow that is stable."

Yes, that. My role model is more likely to influence than my lecture.

Nice point

First time parent of a 1 year old, and while we're just getting started this is pretty much my perspective already. I can already see how time flies so quickly, too quickly to hyper-analyze and optimally re-assess our every interaction. Just play and talk with them, I don't believe that there is any other secret formula.

Indeed. Approach your offspring the same way you would (should) approach your friends, partner, or any other relationship.

Do not patronize, and do not try to apply cookie cutter logic. Be nice, be honest and pay attention to their individual qualities.

I'll skip the humility. I'm smart. Always have been. My parents realized it early on and praised me for it. I pretty much slept through high school because after a couple of minutes of explanation of any math, science or computer science concept I grasped it. I never did any work, although I read a lot about the subjects I enjoyed, because I enjoyed them.

The non-STEM stuff was confusingly ill-defined and in those subjects I was average, at best. And because I wasn't good at them, I avoided them: I didn't do anything to be smart, I always had been, so what could I do to become smart at reading Shakespeare? I had no idea how I could learn to understand something I didn't understand because understanding seemed to have been something I was just born with.

I did well enough on the SATs to get into a top college and decided to major in electrical engineering. I skated through freshman year, earning a low B average.

Towards the end of the year I met with my advisor, the head of the department for the first time. Without preamble he said "We made a mistake. You're not really the person you looked like you'd be in your application." I didn't really grasp what he was saying. "You're not getting the grades your record indicates you could get. You're not working hard enough. You should think about transferring to a less demanding school. In any case, EE requires a commitment and I think you should pick a different major."

I was stunned. This was the first time in my life that anyone had ever done anything but praise my academics. I was angry. How could this adult, who claimed to be some sort of mentor, talk to me like that? In fact, writing this years and years later, I'm still a little pissed off.

But looking around, all my friends and classmates were working their asses off, getting ready for finals. The guy may have been a jerk, but he was right: I wasn't working hard and I wasn't learning very much. Much as I dislike the guy, I have to admit he did me an enormous service. He recognized that I needed a kick in the teeth to take his advice seriously. The next three years I made sure I worked harder than everyone else around me, if only to prove that he was wrong, that I hadn't been a mistake. I stayed in EE and would have graduated near the top of my class if I hadn't had to factor in my freshman year grades.

So what does that prove? That you can make a kid neurotic if you push him hard enough? Maybe. But I know that if I had tried to skate through my post-college life being smart and not working, I would have got nowhere and done nothing interesting. Being super intelligent is like having giant biceps: impressive, but rarely useful. People admire intelligence, but they reward getting things done. Getting things done requires some intelligence, but much more it requires hard work and stick-to-itiveness. I'm not faulting my parents one bit: they manifestly loved me, found me good schools and interesting activities and fed my eagerness to do useful things. But I'm careful with my kids to praise the things they control and can change--like hard work and not being deterred when things are hard--and let the being smart thing take care of itself.

I agree. If you want to game something, game your own life so you can leave your kids trust funds.

See, my parents did this thing where they'd tell me how smart I am all the time, then whenever there would be an argument or a disagreement "Oh, you're just SO smart and we're all SO stupid".

I'm already one of those people with a generally dry/sarcastic sense of humor (think Ruxin from The League, "I can't even tell when you're joking" kinda thing), so I have a hard time telling when I'm actually being an asshole or condescending or not, because while I seriously try to watch myself I still occasionally get the feeling that I came off the wrong way or, well, condescendingly. "You just think you're sooooo smart..."

It's funny how it seems each generation takes a new approach to motivating children. My wife and I try to take a "results are the goal" approach to complimenting my son. When my mother is watching him, she compliments his intelligence. My grandparents seemed to take more of a "helps to be made from good material" kind of approach.

Suddenly my life makes so much more sense.....

Gifted underachievement goes a lot deeper than reinforcement. Eventually, gifted people learn synthesis comes more easily to them and can learn to coast or become anti-social as a result and still get by.

Peter Thiel on his thoughts re: Elon Musk: "[He is] very smart, very charismatic, and incredibly driven -- a very rare combination, since most people who have one of these traits learn to coast on the other two."

Quote source: https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2g4g95/peter_thiel_te...

Was Elon always this way? Or did he end up working on one trait that was lagging behind?

Tim Ferriss had a very interesting podcast with Walter O'Brien which touches on teaching those with incredibly high IQ to develop their EQ (Intelligence:Emotional) to bridge this gap—including himself.

If you're interested: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2016/02/16/scorpion/

Interesting quote and I think it rings true. Though I think it's not uncommon for someone to posses two of those three qualities, certainly having all three is rare.

Agreed! I was just thinking about this the other day, advice I would give to myself when I was younger: Being Smart Isn't Enough.

Could it not be equally harmful to a smart kid to give them the impression that their intelligence is worthless? It seems there should be a balance where kids retain their motivation while also learning how to make the most of their personal advantages and disadvantages.

If a smart kid is always taught the convenient fiction that everyone is exactly the same, then when they interact with an athletic kid who dominates them at sports but struggles academically, what conclusion will the smart kid draw?

And finally, is this "praise effort and self esteem" movement responsible for the current wave of anti-free-speech protests on college campuses?

>Could it not be equally harmful to a smart kid to give them the impression that their intelligence is worthless?

That just doesn't make sense. Praise your kid for doing not for being. Who's advocating teaching smart kids everyone is the same? It seems like any child is going to realize this isn't true.

>is this "praise effort and self esteem" movement responsible for the current wave of anti-free-speech protests on college campuses?

Absolutely not.

That is a result of the cultural admiration of protesting / fighting for rights / rebelling against X. Admiration of the real civil rights movement, environmentalism, etc.

The problem is that as a society we're running out of clean cut black and white issues (no pun intended) to be opposed to. There are still problems, but not nearly as many _simple_ problems. Things are complicated these days.

So they're straying off into the weeds trying to attack complex social issues with the same strategies that worked against simple ones and coming out looking like fools. And likewise the targets of their protests are straying because complex issues don't have a big bad evil you can hate, and that nuance and detail are being lost.

The once reasonable protesting class are being supplanted by increasingly unreasonable protestors who are rebels searching desperately for a cause.

Who's advocating teaching smart kids everyone is the same?

It seems that has been the general trend in elementary education since I was a kid. As an example, I remember the year that all the talent trophies were changed to be the same size, and everyone got one just for participating. Athletics were an exception, though; it was considered acceptable to be better at sports. It was a noble attempt to try to boost the underprivileged, but just ended up confusing everyone.

The once reasonable protesting class are being supplanted by increasingly unreasonable protestors who are rebels searching desperately for a cause.

This is an interesting explanation for the phenomenon I had not yet considered. I am not yet convinced it is the right or only one, but I will keep it in mind.

In my school, it was in 1993/1994.

They went from "tracked" classes that mixed the 20 year old 9th graders with smart kids. Everyone got to suffer together.

I was a "smart kid" in high school and found myself getting bored in the honors class to point of getting kicked out and pushed into the "normal" class as the only white kid, 90% of the time.

It was honestly probably the best thing that happened to me. It helped me build empathy and grounded me to accepting that intelligence is only one piece of the puzzle. I'm now working in a position that gives me huge intellectual freedom.

There is a silver lining.

There's a difference between the "honors" classes with the kid/parent drama and "normal" students. In can see where not being wrapped up with the super achiever people would be a benefit.

In my specific case, it was a poor rural district with four 20-25 student sections. Mixing up the barely literate and disruptive kids made things harder. In my senior year my project partner in Civics was a fellow senior who basically couldn't write.

The only escape was AP classes -- but we only had AP English, US History and Calc.

As part of "raising standards" they started requiring advanced math. We were unable to compete the material, and I learned a lot of math while cramming for the annual exam -- which in my state was standardized and a key to college admissions.

Yes, agreed. Though, it's important to note that the number of honor's programs without that class of drama is small without expensive schooling or certain types of homeschooling.

Not having to do 'difficult' homework was the catalyst that gave me the freetime to work on programming which is another reason why getting kicked out was great.

Not sure why I'm thinking about it or why I'm even mentioning it, but this happened in the same city Ray Bradbury grew up. Everybody in the school was required to read 451, which was treated as a homework with uninterested students' contempt. It's very interesting to be raised in the city that influenced much of his writing.

This isn't about pretending everyone has the same abilities. It is about focusing reinforcement on the choices and actions a kid takes rather than on characteristics they have.

By reinforcing the action, you help a kid understand that it is their effort that led to the achievement, which encourages the kid to make efforts when she wants something.

Reinforcing the characteristic, on the other hand, suggests that it is the kid's innate characteristics that led to the achievement, which encourages them to defend that identity.

> athletic kid who dominates them at sports but struggles academically, what conclusion will the smart kid draw?

Your implicit assumption is that your kid will not succeed at something athletically no matter how hard they try. If a kid dreams of going for the NBA or the NFL, why not let them try?

What's the benefit of praising a child for their intelligence if intelligence is immutable? Is it a self esteem play or what?

Your implicit assumption is that your kid will not succeed at something athletically no matter how hard they try. If a kid dreams of going for the NBA or the NFL, why not let them try?

It's a hypothetical example to show that there might be kids who are inherently good at different things, and that focusing on intelligence as the attribute not to praise hasn't played out over the last 18 years the way people seemed to expect in 1998.

My point is that intellectual aspirations are just as valid as athletic ones, and that kids should be free to choose their goals and dreams with full awareness of their own advantages and disadvantages.

What's the benefit of praising a child for their intelligence if intelligence is immutable?

The benefit I am proposing is that truly intelligent children won't be afraid to use their intelligence to get ahead, nor be afraid to admit where they might not be ahead. IMO maximizing individual potential puts society in a better position to maximize societal potential than trying to normalize everyone to be similar.

> truly intelligent children won't be afraid to use their intelligence to get ahead

I think you're saying that unless you give intelligent children permission to use their intelligence, they won't do so, or will do so less. I find that very dubious. What evidence do you have for this? I even feel (though I hope I am mistaken) that what you are really after is a hint that it's okay for your kids to feel superior or entitled in some sense relative to kids that are less intelligent. If intelligence is useful for producing work, why not let all kids be judged by the work they produce, rather than something abstract like intelligence?

My daughter is only two, but she is clearly smart. Some people tell her how smart she is, but I largely do not. What I try to do instead is to encourage her to keep trying and keep pushing and that failure is temporary. When she was one and learning to climb up and down stairs (which she loves to do over and over again), I would keep telling her "you can do it" as she went down each step and tried to gauge whether or not she could go further. When she was finished I would tell her, "you did it," and she started saying "I did it" when she completed a flight.

She also stumbles and falls a lot as we climb different things and walk over different surfaces. I tell her "keep going" or "you've got this" and she gets right back up and keeps trying. I find that if you focus on saying that she'll be alright or making sure she is not hurt (when she is clearly not), she'll dwell on that, start crying and stop doing what she is doing.

This story and the other links published here got me thinking about this. Innate ability is clearly important when you really think about it, but what I want to instill is this idea that it's normal and natural to fail along the way to success and that even if you are really talented at something, you'll have setbacks.

If you're interested by this, here's a piece[0] by Carol Dweck. She's an interesting researcher.

[0]: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct0...

Of course it can.

What does an intelligent kid do? Find the easiest way to do a task or question whether the task is necessary at all. That's just humans conserving energy. Which is smart. This is not the hard part for them, they excel at this.

Effort is consciously fighting against the drive to stop working. THIS is the hard part. Above average children never have to learn this, because they get through school and life that easy. It's only when they are forced to leave their comfort zone, when problems show up.

Intelligent Children who aren't kept or lead out of this effort-avoidance (which is a kind of motivation as well: the motivation to avoid effort in order to conserve energy) also tend to get worse grades after they got good ones.

Because praising them signals them that they actually overachieved and can therefore put even less energy into accomplishing a task.

So the way to go is praising them for doing something that they didn't want to do or for repeating effort.

What's the general impact on a child's motivational levels after being called "stupid" and/or "lazy"?

Usually they believe it. This is actually pretty well documented in psychology, although I am having some trouble finding a link at the moment.

Let's find out.

Part of the problem with telling your kid that they are smart is that most parents think their kids are smart. The average IQ is about 100. It's one thing to tell an objectively intelligent person that they are intelligent, but it's quite another to get someone who doesn't have great innate gifts thinking that they do and then perhaps causing them not to work harder.

You can outwork someone and make up for an intellectual or physical disadvantage, but you may be less inclined to do so if people tell you that you have greatly innate gifts than you do.

Let's also keep in mind that a lot of very intelligent people are able to focus and think more abstractly, allowing them to be very efficient workers. I just see a lot of parents telling their kids how smart they are, thinking it will build up their self esteem, but I wonder if this is counterproductive if they are actually of more average intelligence.

It's called "growth mindset" (vs. fixed mindset). There are books and hundreds of articles on it.

I've found this TED talk the best explanation of growth vs. fixed mindset: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN34FNbOKXc

I have a pretty good boss. Of course, we're all adults. Anyway, our boss has this way of treating everyone differently -- knowing which buttons to push. With me he'll always give me the occasional harder task saying "This is going to be easy for you"; with my coworker, he has to press harder and say "this is important, don't screw it up".

I was recently depressed and without really having been told anything he gave me this hollywood-movie pep talk along the lines of "it's important that you know that you have great talents so don't sweat the small stuff and tell me if you're in trouble".

Maybe this is pretty much off-topic, but the point I wanted to make is that people react to different things and much of the art of squeezing motivation and productivity out of them has to do with understanding this.

Is there an implication that children also seem to think that intelligence is not variable while amount of work is?

People say I'm smart. I don't buy it. I know a lot of things, sure, but anyone can do that. And I'm lazy, so I tend to be a bit slack about everything, but I like to think I can get things done when it counts. After all, when I apply for college, I'll be competing with all kinds of smart kids. And dammit, I happen to like learning things, and as much as I am lazy, my personal desire to learn things kinda outweighs that.

Which may be why I've spent so much time when I've been ostensibly slacking off trying to understand monads, reading HN, and, every few months or so, once again trying to bash my way through SICP...

TL;DR: If you're interacting with a kid, try to avoid saying, "you're so smart!" and instead say, "You've picked this up really quickly" or "you're such a hard worker". If you tell a child they are smart then they will stop trying either because they assume they can get by on their intelligence or because they are afraid of failing and loosing your praise about how smart they are.

"You worked really hard on it that!" seems a bad thing to say without having observed the kid working hard. I know if I'd been told I worked hard on something that came easily, it would have cost the speaker credibility.

My tentative plan, for my son, is to phrase it as a question. "Did you work hard on this?". If so, praise the hard work. If not, "let's find you something more challenging".

One problem with this type of idea is that kids think in very different ways than you. This question could lead to your son thinking you don't trust that he's working since you're constantly questioning him. I've found I can usually tell when my kids have actually worked hard on something or slacked off so if they're slacking I find other ways of talking about it.

I'm not saying this is a bad idea for sure but I've run in so many cases with my kids where my "clever" way of communicating with them came back and bit me in ways I never would have considered. And since they can't necessarily communicate things well it could fester or direct his thinking in directions you won't know about for a long time.

Parenting is hard. :)

> I've found I can usually tell when my kids have actually worked hard on something or slacked off so if they're slacking I find other ways of talking about it.

The distinction I was drawing wasn't between having worked and having slacked, but having had to work and having a task easy enough work wasn't needed.

More generally, I do take your point - no plan survives contact with the enemy :p

One issue which is neglected when this topic comes up is confusing the method of teaching vs what you are trying to teach. What you are trying to teach is the value of working hard and not only relying on being smart. The mechanism that is being used to teach this is praise. But praise is an external motivation. We know that people work best when they have an intrinsic motivation. That is not to say that external rewards cannot be used. But they should be used with other forms of reinforcement. With our daughter when working with her we focus on encouraging her to keep on trying when encountering some difficulty. And also having her focus on the sense of satisfaction from having completed a difficult task. Personally I know I feel a greater sense of satisfaction after having actually worked for something compared to being able to do something based more on intelligence.

Just try to give credit for the things they did, not for what they are.

Eg if they paid attention in class, or if they took good notes, or if they did the homework, or if they studied -- credit that. Hopefully as a parent you'll have some idea of how they're spending their time.

But I absolutely agree that saying something false is not going to do them any favors [although they might learn that you have no idea how they spend their time].

You're absolutely right. Thank you for your suggestion, I think I'll change my own phrasing if I didn't witness the hard work.

Sure, lying is unhelpful. The point is to praise the positive qualities that are under the recipient's control, such has effort, persistence, decisions. Generally, praise them for what they DO, not who they ARE.

I wouldn't characterize it as lying, so much as making an assumption.

In addition, the work being praised needs to be effective.

I disagree. If your child does something to the absolute best of his/her abilities, but is not very effective, isn't that still praiseworthy?

I have a two year old who exhibits no mastery of the English language, but I praise her when she tries out a new word on for size and keeps attempting to perfect it.

You're praising effective practicing habits. You can praise learning from mistakes. That's great.

I always took "A for effort" to be extremely patronizing because I was trying to do the thing right.

The problem is the "A", not the "A for effort". "A for results" just highlights an arbitrary bar that is likely too low or too high.

I guess a modification on that accounting for the expected performance would make sense.

It might be praiseworthy, but I was talking from the perspective of using praise to improve attainment. Dweck has written about the misapplication of her theories in recent years: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-rev...

I think it's probably more important that it's aimed at being effective than that it is genuinely being effective.

Also, obviously perhaps, just try to follow your sons/daughters progress, so you can praise/comment on what was actually hard for them.

Having raised three kids I have learned that 99% of all parenting advice does not apply to any specific child and any specific parent. That said, parenting goals are consistent; Helping kids to understand the world around them, understand their effect on the world, and recognizing what it will take to achieve a particular goal.

Telling kids they are "smart" is part of the "understanding the world around them" goal. The reality is that everyone has different gifts in different combinations, and as a parent you want to help your child to both discover their own gifts and to appreciate the gifts of others. And you want to do that without imparting a judgment on the relative value of different gifts. Since "smart" is not well defined (does it mean good at math? or clever in solutions? or quickness of retort? depth of vocabulary? Etc.) I have sought to try to tie a gift to the context where it helps have an impact on the world (second concept above) which helps the child understand how they can contribute to an overall project or how others can contribute with their overall project.

The generic advice for parents is to 'praise the accomplishment not the child.' which seeks to turn the child's vision of their place in the world outward. However I have seen that be interpreted as "my accomplishments define me" which can be a problem as well. So I gave up with advice, and stick to goals.

I interpret this advice as trying to give accurate feedback. Students don't get As on tests because they're naturals. They get As on tests from paying attention in class or from studying or from doing their homework [or for some combination].

So crediting what they did specifically (pay attention, study, etc) to accomplish their goal (get an A on a test) is a way to reward the work that they did [and to tie the success -- the A -- to the work that they did].

Saying "you have such a good vocabulary" is a compliment, but it's not a useful one. Saying "your reading has really helped you develop your vocabulary" might be better?

They get As on tests because they answered it right.

Perhaps the test was just too easy to the student that any compliment will sound false or unreal.

Example: to challenge myself in the (any name you give to the class you're in when you are 14) I would challenge myself giving me just one minute to each answer in amath test. Any compliment would be weird.

Yup. "I appreciate that by continuing to develop your vocabulary you've developed the ability to quickly absorb the concepts you read about or hear discussed."

You just have to pass the message "you are important and loved as you are" separately from feedback to a particular task. Your accomplishments do not define you as a whole, but do define the mark you honestly receive.

I was aware of this research for my first kid. Telling them how hard they worked just gave them an excuse to quit later. "This is too difficult! You said so!"

Kids are hard.

Kids are good at making excuses regardless. Logic only slows them down a little bit.

"Yes, it's difficult. The important things are difficult. It's not too difficult for you to do. You can do better each time you try again."

But doesn't every praise, every comparison create a narrative for the child. A narrative that the brain learns to lean on and uses to form self-identity ( hard-worker, good boy ect).

for example, Now the child has learned associate praise( and love) with being a hard worker. This is now his framework for his life, a prison he can never escape.

I think this a form of child abuse, to destroy child's spirit with praises, comparisons etc. Yet society sees this a something positive. Why can't children learn for their own enjoyment, kids already have great deal of intrinsic motivation why do we need to praise him.

Why is working hard a bad thing? In what world is working hard ever a bad thing?

You're conflating "working hard" with drudgery, or working hard at a job. Praising children for working hard is praising them for their drive. I hope to raise a driven child. Drive is the enabler for acting out your internal desires. I'd congratulate my kid for working hard on solving a puzzle or getting better at playing a game.

I do think that stressing taking care of your mental health is very important. Sometimes downtime is needed.

So, you can't give your child guidance on good behavior? Anarchy parenting?

There is a difference between praising effort when effort is needed, and praising pointless effort that is just self-punishment.

Later in life children will be put in situations were being unable to work effectively and put in effort will have really bad impacts on their lives. Preparing them to be able to cope is for their own best.

That does not equate to teaching them to be good little worker drones regardless of their own happiness.

> kids already have great deal of intrinsic motivation why do we need to praise him.

Because not receiving praise and positive attention is soul destroying and leads people to seek other ways of getting attention. In the absence of positive attention, any attention - including punishment will do.

Got a kid? Try ignoring them, and see attention-grabbing behaviour escalate dramatically in an amazingly short time span. From my son was 2 and to this day (he's 7), withdrawing attention has been our primary means of discipline, and it is scarily effective. When he was 2-3 we'd limit it to ignore him for 20-30 seconds at a time.

(In fact, it works with adults too - just try shifting your body away from someone to punish behaviour you find rude or offensive. It's crazily effective with most people)

So given that you almost certainly will praise your children if you want them to thrive, the question is what to praise to help them do as well as possible.

Praising them for effort does not mean praising them only for that, or praising them for working too much. It means praising them for effort in preference to praising them for results. But also praise them for other things, including ensuring they get enough rest and take time to play.

Why can't children learn for their own enjoyment

Have you never met someone whose spirit was broken as a kid, as they struggled to earn praise, but their successes or even struggles were never acknowledged? It's practically a character archetype. Kids hunger for approval from their parents, the same way you hunger for approval from your heroes.

there's no escaping setting a narrative. refraining to praise or compare also sets a narrative. so given that, how can you expect a parent not to at least try to build a good one for their child?

"This is now his framework for his life, a prison he can never escape."

pfft. one's "framework for life" isn't any more durable than anything else.

I also like a phrase that I know from sports, "you really showed me something today".

It is positive feedback based on performance and not a acknowledgement of inherent and innate abilities. Bronx tale might say it best, "there is nothing sadder in this World than wasted talent".

Edit: The article suggests otherwise, that praising ability leads to better outcomes than praising efforts (however, only under the conditions of success).

I grew up in a line of engineers and problem solvers.

As a kid when I'd do something cool and show my parents/relatives, they didn't neither of these approaches - no talking about how smart I was, nor about how much work I'd done. We just talked about how cool whatever the cool thing was.

It was great.

Yes. This is also why I nudge my kids to try things that require work no matter the ability (say chess, where there are always better players) versus things graded against a narrow peer group (Say math, where once you're "at level" the teacher pays less attention.)

I hope this doesn't lead to praise overall can undermine motivation. The mere support and personal validation a child can derive from doing something would be a great motivation.

and does that conclusion create a different and objectively better response?

kids know what synonyms are.

Real TL;DR: This is a big load of BS from people who know nothing about children OR life.

I'm going to keep expressing my awe at how clever my kids are every chance I get. You tell yours to work hard all you want.

Has this study been heavily replicated?

How about "that is great but can you do this?" and give him an harder task.

As an aside, I think this sort of upbringing is a significant contributing factor to the personality type that shows up frequently in the most toxic online groups (MRAs, gamergaters, PUAs, etc). In my glimpses, it's been abundantly clear that many of them are highly intelligent and not much else: single, with shitty jobs, no exceptional skills, and dim prospects for the future. But because they grew up being told they were going to be rich and happy because they were so smart, it's clearly the rest of the world's fault that they didn't end up with the life they feel entitled to.

My parents unfortunately did this to my brother. Especially my mom: "oh you're SO handsome/smart/awesome, all the girls will love you, you should go to the best colleges" etc. He is an extremely unpleasant person now, and definitely not popular with women.

It is not entirely parents' fault. I mean, a ton of men have had the same type of conditioning, but then go on to have a series of uncomfortable epiphanies in high school and college that lead to self-improvement and later happiness. But it for sure is setting your kid up for misery, whether temporary or permanent.

in China, we tell our kids that he/she is crap and he/she better work hard now. or the crappy kid next door is going to crap on him/her.

Seems like that would be psychologically damaging. It's certainly how helicoptor parents are seen in the US.

If you exaggerate the importance of practice, people will do more of it, and become better. But what is the opportunity cost?

Oh hey its time for this thread again.

One problem is that the children's IQs weren't considered in relation to the task at hand. A more useful study would have included how praise for ability and effort effect children in separate classes of intelligence. To be remotely helpful, at the very least, we should know the range and mean IQ of the children in the study.

I clearly remember getting hugely uncomfortable whenever as a child my intellect was praised by an adult. Made me want to completely stop doing anything, lest it draw more of their biased, narrow-minded judgements of me.

Praise intelligence -> makes them give up easier.

Praise hard work -> could be a subtle attempt at manipulation.

Maybe instead we should ask them what they want to do, and support their creative activities.

They are children. The are a big mess of potential without experience. They need guidance from people with experience because they don't know much, even if they have a lot of native intelligence. It's kind of like pruning plants. Some things you encourage, some things you cut off without hesitation.

Sounds cold to some, I understand, but once you've raised a few, you'll know what you did right and what you did wrong. That's still better than letting them decide everything.

I don't like this. As a 5 year old you can't even know what you want in 10 minutes.

What a child wants to do is what a child wants to do right now. If you ask the same question a few minutes later, you could get an entirely different answer.

As adults who have lived through being children, a surprising percentage of us actually do know better than a small child what's best for the small child for a surprising percentage of their lives.

I read once about a highschool boy, a good student, who was shocked when a teacher asked him "What do YOU want to do?". What? he thought. This question has never crossed my mind. Nobody told me I can make my own mind. It was always "teacher knows best" and "parent knows best" and "be a good student and learn what we teach you, do what we tell you".

I wrote from this point of view, but I agree that parents and teachers know better most of the time, I just don't know if it is good to try so hard to make sure the child doesn't make any "wrong" choices.

Sorry, I missed this reply. I think I was considering a younger age range - and even so, I agree. They need to be allowed to make their mistakes.

Do what makes sense for your kid and you. Everything else is mostly nonsense.

I was not a special snowflake and I was not praised for anything ever by my parents. My exam results were below average and every school report was along the lines of must try harder. Recently I did think about this and whether I developed a co-dependent aspect to my personality along the way. Co-dependency does hold people back in life and I feel that a little bit of praise along the way would not have gone amiss.

I worked from age 14 doing paper rounds, gardening jobs, babysitting and I also had a Saturday job in a bicycle shop. All of these opportunities I made for myself, there was no nepotism or anything like that. I never got into trouble or had must-try-harder in these environments. My customers/clients/bosses were not easy to please, but I did please them and the feedback I received was genuine praise and thanks. I had much more disposable income than any of my teachers, I also worked as many hours a week than them. (I know they mark homework and do other stuff after the bell goes). I did have some development issues from doing 40-60 hours of on-your feet hard work week in week out with no holidays ever (plus school, with the equivalent of at least a 10K jog every day) so painful ankles was normal to me.

From this experience I gained quite a few mentors, and, in the world of business, if you have customers to serve, and if time is money, then failures (e.g. breaking something) could be dealt with more sensibly - no inquisition/detention, just don`t do it again and everyone is happy.


Amongst my clique of school friends, nobody else got the work thing. They had pocket money and school dinner money instead of their own earnings. They also had parents that helped them along to posh universities (or art schools) and quiet, warm places to study. If they wanted a bicycle then one would appear for them if they behaved. To them money was something you held onto, it wasn`t something you just walked out the door to get. They had a limited reservoir of money not a flowing river of the stuff. They would also have exciting activities in the after school hours - swimming, piano lessons, you know the drill - none of these things they personally had to pay for, the parents did. Consequently they could be assertive to get what they wanted - they developed a sense of entitlement for things whereas I went the other way - servitude to others!!! That was how I got my praise, building customer/client/employer relationships and school. I always felt that any praise that did come from school was lip-service and utterly worthless. On the flipside I knew that I could always get work and didn`t have to be beholden to any employer. I still see this aspect today as a programmer. If I have a bad day I could just pick up the phone and be somewhere else next Monday, no references or interview needed. My regular office colleagues don`t have this, moving up the hierarchy by doing as they are told is how it works.

I don`t see small children with 25Kgs of newspapers on their backs at the crack of dawn or small children pushing heavy lawnmowers or serving people in shops. The world has moved on from that possibility.

However I do see people who want to win the lottery, be a pop star or a footballer. I also see a lot of young people getting validation through Facebook likes from their peers. None of these things are real... It is only in the area of software development that kids can actually do something to get praise denied by parents and teachers. So, if you are 14 and reading this, that is my advice - write code, get happy customers and get some real world praise.

I think I was one of the first of my peers to get a job at 15. It's not that my parents didn't pay for things for me, just that they had their ideas of what they wanted me to do, and my ideas of what I wanted to do were different.

I haven't been unemployed for a significant time since, I've been out of work 2 months now (I start my new job in a week) and it's driven me up the wall.

Most people I knew in high school never had a job, and I knew a few people at university who managed to go through their entire degree without a job as well. These people have never worked a day in their life, they're going to have massive issues when it comes to actually finding a career. I'd never hire someone who's 20-something with no job experience.

Upon saying that, along the way I've picked up an attitude of work harder, not smarter, which I've been struggling to reverse. I worked for half a decade in kitchens, where that was the prevailing attitude, nobody would spend 5 minutes to save them 20 minutes. Chefs aren't known for being intellectuals and good managers.

He is also fucking lucky... Which helps ! Winning the startup lottery does not equal being a life role model. I would not generalize on such people.

I agree with your general point, but debating the merits of a specific celebrity's success is slightly in bad taste for this site, and in any case this has drifted far from Dweck's work.

One of the hard things about Hacker News is making sure that interesting topics get discussed, instead of getting pulled into a stronger gravitational field. Satellite digressions are often ok, but having every discussion land on the same old popular planets (what, Jupiter again?) is tedious.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12234163 and marked it off-topic.

“I'm a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it”

-- Thomas Jefferson

(likely fake, but still good)

Ha you should watch Thiels talk at SXSW on luck, just to get the whole picture / his context.

Once — okay, lucky. Twice — pretty rare but still possible. Three times? It's not luck at that point. (I'm referring to the progression from Zip2 to PayPal to SpaceX and Tesla).

This is utter bullshit. Let the fucking kid enjoy some self-esteem. Focusing on improving his "motivation" instead of his well-being is manipulative and can backfire in so many ways. Just let him be. Fuck the productivity way of life.

Your reaction is like an Ostrich burying its head in the sand. A profane Ostrich.

It's unwise to ignore the unintended consequences of your actions, and that's still true even if you wish said consequences didn't exist.

When I was constantly praised for being intelligent, but criticized for my real failings, I didn't got high self-steem. I got instead self hate, and extreme amounts of Hubris, of the sort that I believed myself so intelligent that I could tell a very high ranked government official that she was dumb, without consequences. (I was 15 during that incident, caused some crazy mess)

well, was the government official really dumb though?

the lesson is "don't piss of people with power over you that are willing to use it". that's a tough lesson to learn and is practical advice for survival in this world. there is value in truth though. learning better strategies for telling the truth is very valuable.

> Let the fucking kid enjoy some self-esteem.

I'd rather try to give him tools he can use to build self-respect, so his early life isn't as fucked up as mine was.

> This is utter bullshit. Let the fucking kid enjoy some self-esteem.

You don't think a person can have self-esteem based on their work ethic?

false dichotomy. a person can have self-esteem based on EITHER or BOTH of those characteristics.

It's not. His comment continues: "Focusing on improving his "motivation" instead of his well-being..."

The use of "instead of," combined with the linked paper's recommendation of praising for effort rather than ability, implies that this dichotomy is anything but false in his mind.

You can let the kid enjoy self-esteem, by praising their hard work.

So what? If they're smart they dont need to work anyway...

I was "the" smart kid in my social circle. People that knew mr as a kid still ask me opinion on random stuff because they remember that.

But my adult life (I am 28 now) went nowhere precisely for this reason.

As a kid, I could literally skip all classes and homework, then figure the subject "on the spot" during tests, and score high enough to still pass.

This doesn't work as adult, but I don't know how to do it right now...

Me too. I cruised through all the way up through high school. When I got to college (UC Berkeley), the first paper I wrote, I got a D minus. Boy was that a wake up call. I had to learn to work a lot harder because the level of competition was so much higher.

A good practice to adopt to help with this: join a gym and work out 2-3 times a week.

Learn through the gym how to enjoy the process more than the milestones, and apply the same mechanic to other aspects of life. What's the next 2% improvement you can make to anything in your life?

This is the same attitude we held towards college degrees and look where we ended up with that.

Dont know... I am French and College degrees are free and quite cool around there.

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