Brushing aside failure, and just focusing on the positive, isn't the norm all over the world. A young scholar at the University of Illinois, Dr. Florrie Ng, reproduced Dweck's paradigm with fifth-graders both in Illinois and in Hong Kong. Ng added an interesting dimension to the experiment. Rather than having the kids take the short IQ tests at their school, the children's mothers brought them to the scholars' offices on campus (both in Urbana-Champaign and at the University of Hong Kong). While the moms sat in the waiting room, half the kids were randomly given the really hard test, where they could get only about half right—inducing a sense of failure. At that point, the kids were given a five-minute break before the second test, and the moms were allowed into the testing room to talk with their child. On the way in, the moms were told their child's actual raw score and were told a lie—that this score represented a below-average result. Hidden cameras recorded the five-minute interaction between mother and child.
The American mothers carefully avoided making negative comments. They remained fairly upbeat and positive with their child. The majority of the minutes were spent talking about something other than the testing at hand, such as what they might have for dinner. But the Chinese children were likely to hear, "You didn't concentrate when doing it," and "Let's look over your test." The majority of the break was spent discussing the test and its importance.
After the break, the Chinese kids' scores on the second test jumped 33 percent, more than twice the gain of the Americans. The trade-off here would seem to be that the Chinese mothers acted harsh or cruel—but that stereotype may not reflect modern parenting in Hong Kong. Nor was it quite what Ng saw on the videotapes. While their words were firm, the Chinese mothers actually smiled and hugged their children every bit as much as the American mothers (and were no more likely to frown or raise their voices).
My son, Luke, is in kindergarten. He seems supersensitive to the potential judgment of his peers. Luke justifies it by saying, "I'm shy," but he's not really shy. He has no fear of strange cities or talking to strangers, and at his school, he has sung in front of large audiences. Rather, I'd say he's proud and self-conscious. His school has simple uniforms (navy T-shirt, navy pants), and he loves that his choice of clothes can't be ridiculed, "because then they'd be teasing themselves too."
After reading Carol Dweck's research, I began to alter how I praised him, but not completely. I suppose my hesitation was that the mindset Dweck wants students to have—a firm belief that the way to bounce back from failure is to work harder—sounds awfully cliched: try, try again.