When I was growing up, it was said that one should not engage in discussions of religion or politics. These days, engaging in conversation concerning how someone raises their children is just as likely to end the relationship as a discussion of their religious or political beliefs.
The further problem is that anti-intellectualism is in the air. In “The Iron Lady,” the aged Margaret Thatcher, as portrayed by Meryl Streep, becomes quite agitated when her physician asks her how she's feeling. She reprimands him, noting that it is a person's thoughts, not their feelings, that truly count, that truly reflect the character of the person.
Indeed, feelings are functional only when they are under intellectual control. When the opposite is the case, when feelings rule thought processes, irrational thinking and behavior are the inevitable outcome. When feelings rule, facts are irrelevant. Examples abound of widely held beliefs that have little if any basis in fact. To the believers in question, that makes no difference. They feel, and that's enough for them.
I recently came across a study showing that when adults praise ability, performance actually worsens. Praising effort, on the other hand, raises performance over time. This is the difference between telling a child he's really good at math and telling a child you're proud of how much effort he put forth studying for the math test (irrespective of his grade). Over time, the former child's math grades are likely to go down, while the latter child's go up.
Ability-based praise causes the former child to believe he is entitled to good grades in math, no matter his effort. So, he does less and less. This finding shows that regardless of context, entitlement is corrosive. It does not bring out the best in people and may in fact bring out the worst, including increasing demands for more entitlements.
The interesting thing about the research is that when the researcher informed parents — who tend, in general, to believe praising ability is good — of her results, the majority dismissed it, became defensive, or flat out told her they didn't care, they were going to keep right on telling their kids how wonderful they were.
That's irrational. That's a prime example of the axiom that when a person “thinks with his feelings,” he does not think well. Here we have parents for whom facts are irrelevant. They won't even consider them. They think that they, and only they, know what's best for their kids, not some academic. That's not true. It is tough at best for parents to be objective. The purpose of research-based information is to help them make better decisions.
Why didn't the study's results cause parents to reconsider their praise policies? Because giving praise made them feel good, and getting praise made their kids feel good. As the refrain of a popular '70s tune put it, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings.” They rule the day.
For more than 40 years, parents and schools have put more emphasis on children's feelings (i.e., making them feel good about themselves) than their thoughts. This is why so many of them have such difficulty thinking straight: choosing responsibility over irresponsibility, delaying gratification, holding back the wild horses of their impulses.
It's bad enough when children operate on the basis of feelings. It's potentially catastrophic when their parents do as well.