A couple of summers ago my family was on vacation with another family, and in the midst of playing paddle ball on the beach, our friend’s 8-year-old daughter exclaimed, “Practice makes pretty good.” At the time, I remember thinking that was a cute alternative to the phrase we all grew up hearing. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think there is a critical lesson to be gleaned for all of us who work with young people.
It is fairly common knowledge that children hear just about everything said around them. We’ve all probably wished in hindsight we hadn’t said something after hearing little voices repeating our words. Our language and specifically our attributions and value judgments have a profound impact in shaping children’s impressions of themselves and their world.
Researchers, such as the psychologist Carol Dweck, have studied and written extensively about the power and danger of words (and specifically praise). It is human nature to fall back on the familiar and known, and individuals tend to nurture and guide youth in the same way they were raised and nurtured. This fact, despite generally good intentions, often leads caring and committed professionals to say and do things that can have an adverse impact on development.
Let’s look at the widely used phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” as an example. Many of us grew up being told if we practiced long and hard, we’d master a desired skill or activity. Many of you reading this column may have repeated these words to encourage children not to give up on a challenging task. Unfortunately, if we take the time to really think about the phrase, we realize we’re not being completely honest with ourselves or the children we are trying to encourage.
In many instances, practice can lead to exceptional play, improved technique, or a more consistent level of performance. While the improvement can be exponential, it does not equate to perfection. In fact, depending on the activity and the individual participant, frequently no amount of practice will lead to perfection. And, more surprisingly, even individuals who appear to be a great match for a given activity (based on a combination of talent/interest/support) at times struggle to even become proficient after years of practice. For example, Shaquille O’Neal finished his storied 21-year NBA career making just below 53 percent of his free throws (REF – Basketball Reference.com - http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/o/onealsh01.html). Does anyone honestly believe that was due to a lack of practice or effort? Of course not. It’s just a quick example demonstrating that frequently no amount of practice leads to perfection.
We Are What We Perceive
So, what does Shaq’s less-than-stellar free-throw effort teach us about what we say and show to young people? We’ve all heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the reality is that in many cases an individual’s expectations and explanations of events or results do have a very real effect on future successes and failures.
So, when we tell children that practice makes perfect, we’re literally telling them that if they practice enough, they’ll perfect a desired skill. In general, children are incredibly trusting of adults, but at the same time they are incredibly proficient at recognizing and learning from patterns. Most children will believe a coach, parent, or teacher who tells them that “practice makes perfect,” and they will work hard for a time believing they can do anything they set their mind to. Eventually, though, they will recognize that despite their efforts, they're not approaching perfection and over time will likely begin to become less confident in their potential, and perhaps less motivated to continue practicing the skill. In addition to losing motivation, children will also remember that the adult doesn’t always tell the truth and the child/adult relationship may suffer.