George Will

WASHINGTON -- Memo to that Massachusetts school where children in physical education classes jump rope without using ropes: Get some ropes. And you -- you are about 85 percent of all parents -- who are constantly telling your children how intelligent they are: Do your children a favor and pipe down.

These are nuggets from "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It is another book to torment modern parents who are determined to bring to bear on their offspring the accumulated science of child-rearing. Modern parents want to nurture so skillfully that Mother Nature will gasp in admiration at the marvels their parenting produces from the soft clay of children.

Those Massachusetts children are jumping rope without ropes because of a self-esteem obsession. The assumption is that thinking highly of oneself is a prerequisite for high achievement. That is why some children's soccer teams stopped counting goals (think of the damaged psyches of children who rarely scored) and shower trophies on everyone. No child at that Massachusetts school suffers damaged self-esteem by tripping on the jump rope.

But the theory that praise, self-esteem and accomplishment increase in tandem is false. Children incessantly praised for their intelligence (often by parents who are really praising themselves) often underrate the importance of effort. Children who open their lunchboxes and find mothers' handwritten notes telling them how amazingly bright they are tend to falter when they encounter academic difficulties. Also, Bronson and Merryman say that overpraised children are prone to cheating because they have not developed strategies for coping with failure.

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"We put our children in high-pressure environments," Bronson and Merryman write, "seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments." But children excessively praised for their intelligence become risk averse in order to preserve their reputations. Instead, Bronson and Merryman say, praise effort ("I like how you keep trying"): It is a variable children can control.

They often cannot control cars. In 1999, a Johns Hopkins University study found that some school districts that abolished driver's education courses experienced a 27 percent decrease in auto accidents among 16- and 17-year-olds. Odd.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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