"You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
I love that quote. And considering it came from a guy nicknamed “The Great One,” it’s advice that resonates.
Wayne Gretzky, who scored more points than any hockey player who’s ever laced up a pair of skates, was by no means a puck hog. He just knew that to be successful you have to stay aggressive, despite the fact that you’re going to miss more often than not.
Jack Nicklaus (aka “The Golden Bear”) finished second in 19 major golf championships. No one can match that record, nor can they equal his 18 major victories. The fact that he failed more than he succeeded made him golf’s all-time biggest winner.
So, yes, The Great One and The Golden Bear are two of the best examples ever of building a great champion through consistent failure.
But try telling that to your kids sometime. No, really telling them. It’s actually OK to screw up, to strike out, to flunk a test, to fail. Over and over and over again. You can’t do it, can you? You can’t muster the words to tell your little princess that she’s not going to be the next Mia Hamm. You can’t figure out how to break the news to your son that he’s likely not going to cure cancer, let alone be allowed to hand out Advil in a Minute Clinic.
Admit it, you’re a praise addict. Sure, you might try to dole out a dose of occasional constructive criticism from time to time. But the minute a rival parent starts gushing over her angel’s ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, you give in and start following suit with your kid.
Carol Dweck was a grad student at Yale when, in 1972, she conducted a really interesting experiment. She gave a bunch of children a test that was a bit beyond their comprehension. Obviously, they struggled. Some of the kids freaked out over failing. Others dealt with it and moved on. But it was the third group that was really striking. They enjoyed the challenge and wanted another to see if they could improve. The results blew Dweck away. For these unusual rugrats, failure was seen as a positive experience. They wanted more.
My father knew all about this revelation long before any Yale paper was published. And he was as close to a doctor as Julius Erving. (Look it up if you don’t know Dr. J.)
In the ’70s, praise wasn’t something heaped on kids like mashed potatoes and Hamburger Helper. I think I praise my kids more in a run-of-the-mill weekend than my dad did during an entire year. Don’t get me wrong. My dad wasn’t some “Great Santini,” bouncing basketballs off my head. He just didn’t kiss my butt every time I brought home a good grade or sank a basket.
And you know what? I never thought anything of it. Weirdly, I actually graduated from college and got a real job later in life.
(I know, shocking.)
I think I actually do a solid job of not giving my kids too much false praise. (Of course, if someone had recorded the last 15 years and played them back to me after hog-tying me to a chair, I’m pretty sure that previous sentence would be brought to its knees.) Sure, I’m guilty of feeding my kids empty praise from time to time (see: every day).
But, the truth is, it’s really not that smart to call your kid “smart.” I’ve tried to exorcise the word from my vocabulary altogether. Instead of calling him smart, I tell my son I’m proud of him for working hard enough to do well in his math class. I tell him that the extra practice time in the batting cage is starting to pay dividends. I tell my daughter that she’s a great speller because she reads more than most kids, and I realize that takes a lot of dedication. I always give specific feedback and acknowledge the fact that without working hard, the results wouldn’t follow.
I’m pretty much the perfect dad. (Ha! If you believe that, I’ve got a Smart car to sell you.) I stole those well-meaning guidelines from a story I recently read in my second-favorite in-flight magazine, Southwest: The Magazine. (Sorry, but American Way remains the gold standard for stories, crosswords and airport diagrams.)
I struggle with fake praise just like you do.
It’s natural to compliment your kids, and using the word “smart” is often the quickest, easiest way to shower praise. But listen, kids who only hear about how smart they are can be quick to give up when the going gets tough so they don’t lose that label. Heaven help them if they actually came up short on a pop quiz in homeroom. These kids aren’t very durable, and the fault lies with us.
But I have faith in us parents. I know we can come together and get on the same page with this epidemic of false praise. Let’s all agree to follow the words of another legend, Will Rogers: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”