Talking to Children: A Pre-Holiday Guide

by daenerys2 min read20th Dec 201194 comments

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Parenting
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Note: This is based on anecdotal evidence, personal experience (I have worked with children for many years. It is my full-time job.) and "general knowledge" rather than scientific studies, though I welcome any relevant links on either side of the issue.

 


 

The holidays are upon us, and I would guess that even though most of us are atheists, that we will still be spending time with our extended families sometime in the next week. These extended families are likely to include nieces and nephews, or other children, that you will have to interact with (probably whether you like it or not...)

Many LW-ers might not spend a lot of time with children in their day-to-day lives, and therefore I would like to make a quick comment on how to interact with them in a way that is conducive to their development. After all, if we want to live in a rationalist world tomorrow, one of the best ways to get there is by raising children who can become rationalist adults. 

PLEASE READ THIS LINK if there are any little girls you will be seeing this holiday season:

How To Talk to Little Girls: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false


I know it's hard, but DON'T tell little girls that they look cute, and DON'T comment on their adorable little outfits, or their pony-tailed hair. The world is already screaming at them that the primary thing other people notice and care about for them is their looks. Ask them about their opinions, or their hobbies. Point them toward growing into a well-rounded adult with a mind of her own.

This does not just apply to little girls and their looks, but can be extrapolated to SO many other circumstances. For example, when children (of either gender) are succeeding in something, whether it is school-work, or a drawing, DON'T comment on how smart or skilled they are. Instead, say something like: "Wow, that was a really difficult math problem you just solved. You must have studied really hard to understand it!" Have your comments focus on complementing their hard work, and their determination.

By commenting on children's innate abilities, you are setting them up to believe that if they are good at something, it is solely based on talent. Conversely, by commenting on the amount of work or effort that went into their progress, you are setting them up to believe that they need to put effort into things, in order to succeed at them.


This may not seem like a big deal, but I have worked in childcare for many years, and have learned how elastic children's brains are. You can get them to believe almost anything, or have any opinion, JUST by telling them they have that opinion. Tell a kid they like helping you cook often enough, and they will quickly think that they like helping you cook.

For a specific example, I made my first charge like my favorite of the little-kid shows by saying: "Ooo! Kim Possible is on! You love this show!" She soon internalized it, and it became one of her favorites. There is of course a limit to this. No amount of saying "That show is boring", and "You don't like that show" could convince her that Wonderpets was NOT super-awesome.

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I strongly suspect that what's going on with "people who talk to children like they're adults" is that they talk to children like they're people.

The morality of convincing children of arbitrary stuff is questionable. Though less than usual, because children are designed to work that way (also changing their preferences in cartoons isn't the end of the world). Do you know if the liking is sincere - i.e., if they enjoy cooking, or only believe they do and are surprised to find they didn't after each time?

Regarding "convincing" children of things: this AI koan is relevant.

In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.

“What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.

“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-Tac-Toe” Sussman replied.

“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.

“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.

Minsky then shut his eyes.

“Why do you close your eyes?”, Sussman asked his teacher.

“So that the room will be empty.”

At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

Children are input/output machines. What you put in, is what you get out. This is especially true of the younger ages. For example, an older child, say a 10 year old, already has 10 years of input going in, so it is much harder to work against all that previous input, than with a 3 year old.

Children's beliefs are being formed by their environment all the time. Every waking second, every personal interaction, is forming them into their future selves. You can either acknowledge this, and use it to your advantage to help them be the best future self they can be, OR you can say that it is "manipulative" and instead leave their formation up to chance.

For example, if I convince a child they like helping me cook, it certainly isn't for my benefit. Cooking takes three times as long, and causes more mess and trouble if you have a child "helping" you. You convince them they like cooking so that they grow up having a skill that is needed for coping in the world.

Also, in real life, the cartoon I convinced my charge that she like was "Higglytown Heroes", which I like because it shows that everyone in town is important in their own way. It was just less embarassing ... (read more)

6MixedNuts10yYeah, I did say that children were designed to work like that. Your dichotomy is false, though; adults influence each others' opinions all the time [http://xkcd.com/185/]. I'm significantly less bothered "This show is great" (it will have greater influence than on an adult, but that may be a feature) than by "You love this show" (a lie). Okay. What measure did you use? (Hmm, I wonder if self-image consistency has a large effect in young children.) My big problem is that children do work differently from adults, but there doesn't appear to be a model for treating them like unusual people. It's like if they were lots of blind people around, and most seeing people treated them like noisy decoration, used their sight to boss them around [http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=203], refused to talk to them about visual phenomena, told them lies about what they saw to shut them up, treated sightedness as absolute authority, and found laughable the idea they could have valuable opinions, but the only sighted people who didn't just ignored the blindness instead of occasionally telling them "There's fresh paint on this bench".

My big problem is that children do work differently from adults, but there doesn't appear to be a model for treating them like unusual people.

You might be interested in the Continuum Concept, then. The book describes the childcare practices of the Yequana and other indigenous cultures that treat children as if they're differently-abled people rather than an underclass.

On first reading the continuum stuff, it's easy to get caught up in the parts that have to do with physical contact, feeding, etc. of babies, as that's where a lot of the discussion is. But the actual idea of "continuum" (at least as I see it), is that basically these cultures treated children as if they were "real people" from birth... as if they're full members of the community, with the same needs for contact, participation, respect, trust, belonging, etc. as full-grown adults -- and vice versa. (That is, adults aren't deprived of play, empathy, touch, etc. either.)

Even as much as Eliezer speaks and writes about the subject, it's still a bit of culture shock to see how fundamentally wrong our own culture is about the treatment of children, in ways that never occurred to me, even as a chil... (read more)

1TimS10yIncrease and decrease of frequency of behavior (i.e. does the child ask for the preferred object more or less often) seems like a plausible candidate.
0MixedNuts10yNo. If you have a self-image that says you like cooking you may cook a lot more without enjoying it more.
1TimS10yI thought the question was how to measure the effect of the intervention.
2fetidodor10yThis doesn't sound right to me. I think you could find certain things "manipulative", and so look at specifically doing/saying things that weren't manipulative. For example, what if you told the children of their own bias, or you told them, "Don't believe what I say just because I tell you that you believe it." I'm sure your intentions are correct, but I would think the interaction could be consistent with "ordinary adult interaction" with regards to manipulation and so on.

what if you told the children of their own bias

This might be useful at a certain age. But for younger children, that just isn't reasonable. They don't have the development to understand that. For example, here is the basic script of the "False Belief" Test, that shows a lack of Theory of Mind.

Tester: [presents crayon box] What do you think is inside?
Child (2-3 year old): Crayons!
Tester: [opens box. shows that there are birthday candles inside box] Oh, look! What is actually inside the box?
Child: birthday candles!
Tester: [closes box] Before I opened the box, what did you think was inside the box?
Child: Birthday candles!
Tester: Your mom is outside the room. If she came in, and we showed her this [closed] box, what would your Mom think was inside the box?
Child: Birthday candles!

So good luck getting them to actually understand cognitive biases!

what if... you told them, "Don't believe what I say just because I tell you that you believe it."

Then you are doing the exact same thing I am advocating for. You are manipulating their mind (by telling them what you want them to believe) to result in a positive outcome.

8lavalamp10yDoes the child respond that way because they have no theory of mind, or because they don't parse the questions well and are just hearing, "blah blah blah what's inside the box?" (this interpretation still supports your point, this is just something I always wonder about when I hear that chlidren have no theory of mind.)

I would say that it is definitely that they do not have the cognitive/developmental abilities. There are MANY experiments, showing various fallacies at various ages. Here are some other examples:

Lack Conservation

Formal Operation

1lavalamp10yI'd read about those things before, but the videos were still cool, thanks.
0fubarobfusco10yAnother possibility is a lack of sequencing events in time: if you're not separating "what I see right now" from "what I thought before" consistently, you're going to come up with funny answers.
-9MixedNuts10y

I strongly suspect that what's going on with "people who talk to children like they're adults" is that they talk to children like they're people.

Strongly seconded. I've long been certain that this is the reason I get along so easily with that kids older than about 4. I listen to what they're saying, ask for more information about things they're interested in, and enthuse about things I'm interested in. In general, I talk to them like I'd talk to friendly acquaintances.

From what I recall of childhood, people who aren't obviously disingenuous towards kids are rare, and precious to kids.

4David_Gerard10yAnecdote: sure works for me. I have zero personal interest in sticker dolly books [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christmas-Dolly-Dressing-Usborne-Sticker/dp/0746087985] or drawing pictures of dinosaurs, but my 4yo sure does and she lights up when I participate in her projects in a way that takes her interests seriously. We are blatantly and consciously encouraging her interests in art and music, and she's getting commendations at school for it. She's even allowed to touch mum's Wacom graphics tablet ...

"Wow, that was a really difficult math problem you just solved. You must have studied really hard to understand it!"

I had a third-grade science teacher who said something very similar to me after getting a perfect score on the first test of the new school year. It did two things; it made me think she was an idiot, and it made me feel guilt. Because, see, I didn't actually put in any study. I'd just paid basic attention in class, and then spouted it all back out.

Before I even read your comment I was going to post almost exactly the same story.

I was about 7 years old and I was praised by the teacher to the other kids in the class as an example of the value of hard work. "Listen how well Apprentice just read this page for us. You know how he can do this so well? Because he carefully practices the assigned reading at home every time. You guys need to do that too."

This was wrong but I didn't correct the teacher and, like you, I felt guilty about the lie by omission. I hadn't actually read this text at home before the class - nor did I ever practice reading the assigned texts at home. I was a fluent reader before I started school and there was no point in me practicing at home.

Throughout compulsory education, the teachers made efforts like this to instill in students the idea of "you have good results in school if and only if you do hard work". This did not fit with my experience but it seemed to be accepted by some of the other kids. I think they looked at it like this: "I put much more effort into schoolwork than I should like but Apprentice still gets far better results than I do. He must be truly torturing himself w... (read more)

4DavidAgain10yYes: I think the point above was driving at the 'praise effort not talent', which I buy, but praising effort where there was none can be counter-productive. Possibly with younger children they will actually associate the success with 'working hard' or 'talent' based on how you present it to them, but I don't think that works with older children or adults. There you'd have to actually identify what was hard work and praise that more than talents: or where something involved both, focus on the work.
0printing-spoon10yI don't understand, why guilt?

It's about the difference between honor and reputation.

Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. The friction tends to arise when the two are not the same.

Lois Bujold, "A Civil Campaign"

7see10yIt was pretty clearly a lie of omission when I didn't correct the teacher, so eight-year-old me felt guilty for that. Why didn't I? Partly, because I couldn't muster the courage, and partly because she'd gone on in the next sentence to use my "hard work" as an example for the class and I didn't want to undermine the lesson. Now, adult me can look back and say, "Kid, there was no need to feel any guilt; what you did was fine given the situation and pressures." But that precocious third-grader knew Lying Was Wrong.

The advice to praise children for effort rather than for ability is based on research by Carol Dweck on growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. See this short article which she wrote, this longer article about her work, this video of one of her studies, or her book Mindset.

[-][anonymous]10y 16

Thanks for that reminder. I'm still struggling to overcome the damage done to me by people telling me as a kid how smart I was. So please for the love of everything that is good in mankind, remember that you have a human's life in your hand and treat it accordingly.

6Nisan10yWould you be willing to describe the effect that had on you? If I had to guess, I'd guess that you ended up needing such praise to feel good about yourself, and that you ended up needing to live up to that praise. But it would help my understanding to read a true story.

I am also still working to overcome the consequences of my parents, other adults, and peers constantly telling me (up through high school) that I was so very smart. The effect is compounded when one grows up in a small American town in the south. It was not at all unusual for a high school peer to believe that because I skipped a grade in junior high school and was graduating high school a year early, that I was somehow on the path to curing cancer or destined for a Nobel Prize. The sanity waterline still has much room for improvement.

What ended up happening was that I was forced to transfer - and forgo a full scholarship - after a semester at a top-15 university (by US News and World Report). I realized there that I simply did not know how to study efficiently, or even at all. Essentially, early association of approval and accomplishments to innate talent led me to disregard the value of hard work and determination.

Another consequence is, of course, having an overblown sense of superiority. At many good, but not necessarily elite, universities, quite a few freshmen come in who were top of their class in high school and have to adjust to being in the middle of the pack.

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It had a similar effect on me.

I didn't learn how to form any study habits in college, and it really hurt me in graduate school. It concerns my development as a kid because I was unfortunate enough to graduate at 16. I tricked my parents and myself by telling them I was "studying" all the time on the computer, even though I was mostly recreationally programming and internet browsing, which I viewed as superior to studying. Most undergraduate work is rote and unchallenging, so I would usually procrastinate to the last moment without much detriment to my grades. Being much younger than my classmates means I didn't have any peer guidance in the formation of study habits, either.

Such is the woe of "child prodigies." Some students that zip through school have high intelligence and rationality (and extremely careful parents), and these usually earn a spot in history books.

I was never a child prodigy, but I took myself to be the smartest student in my junior high school class of 25 or so. Maybe I was, but if so it wasn't by a huge margin. But I had some mildly precocious interests and was overpraised. I decided it was the natural order of life that I would always be able to coast by without effort and would always be the smartest guy in the room. In other words, I bound up my self esteem to my supposed intellectual superiority, and I had learned to be lazy. This is a very, very bad combination. My parents went to considerable trouble to send me to a high school with an excellent academic reputation. When I found out I wasn't really all that relatively smart any more, my ego took a hit. Merely average grades were terrifying, a sign of failure. At the same time, having to work hard to get good grades seemed like a sign of failure, too. I felt like Charlie in the second half of Flowers for Algernon. I became far, far too overcautious, too ready to quit at the first hint of trouble. In LessWrong terms, I surrounded myself with ugh fields.

I see now that I was never really that smart. I wish I'd known that earlier. In the words of Jay Leno, "A little low self-esteem is actually quite good. Maybe you're not the best, so you should work a little harder."

7Normal_Anomaly10yI'm sometimes afraid that I'm in the middle of this process myself. I'm a high school student, and I've been told I was smart for as long as I can remember. I've never had to study to get good grades. I don't know how much study is normal, but I suspect it's more than I ever do. While I do study some I can't really tell if it helps: I get As when I study, and I get slightly lower As when I don't. I have a sense of superiority that I try to keep calibrated. I'm about to go to an elite college, where I will most likely be average and get average grades. I'm afraid that I won't be able to handle the need to work hard and the experience of being in the middle of the pack, but I hope that expecting it will make it easier.

If I met you in person, I would probably be too embarrassed to say: don't make my mistakes.

For what it's worth, I suggest you first find something worth working hard on, and then work really, really hard on it. I'd further suggest that, even if you're not quite sure that you've found the one true task that is your calling, maybe you should still take a bit of time busting your ass on whatever task may be in front of you. After a while, you could reasonably then step back and reflect on whether you're using your talents wisely. Maybe you should then choose some other goal to bust your ass for. But don't completely waste your time like I did.

I've seen some of your posts. I think you're more talented than I ever was.* However, I also wouldn't mean any offense by suggesting that you might not be quite as talented as Isaac Newton. The reason I bring it up is because I think everyone can agree that Isaac Newton had a lot of basic native talent, but also, he worked himself like a dog for years.

  • I offer this compliment through gritted teeth, but not with personal animosity. I envy you. I would give a lot to be as smart and as young as you. Too late for me, though. I really, really wish you the best. Don't fuck it up.
6Normal_Anomaly10yThank you for the advice. I'll follow it.
1dlthomas10yConsciousness of this is likely to help, I think.
6AspiringKnitter10yI relate, but as a genius and getting decent (but not exceptional) results from no work. At least, in some areas. It's annoying. It's especially annoying to think about how I could've been Eliezer but probably couldn't now. And that gives me an idea for tomorrow.
7gwillen9yMy advice to anybody who says 'I regret not doing X in the past, but it's too late now', is to reconsider very very carefully whether it is actually too late now, or whether you will in the future find yourself saying 'I regret not doing X in the past because I thought it was too late; but now it's really too late'.
1arundelo9y-- Anonymous
3CronoDAS10yThat describes me pretty well too. Now I have yet another reason to stay out of graduate school! ;)
6[anonymous]10yIt wasn't so much a need for praise, more a need to feel superior since I think I based my identity on being smarter than anybody else. And, as others have answered here, with that came a need to make my successes seem effortless so I too couldn't form any habit of studying or even just thinking things through. Instead I formed a habit of jumping on to any first thought that would pop into my head and consider that to be correct until proven wrong beyond my capacity to rationalize. The third aspect is that I had a self image of having all the answers. I think I've overcome all of these shortcomings to a point where they are no longer destructive. So even if we've been ruined as children we still have the ability to correct these mistakes as adults. Still, as ASpiringKnitter pointed out, to think where I could have been by now makes me sad.
3[anonymous]10y.
0Multiheaded10ySign me up for the club.

If you wanted to encourage efficient work as least as much as hard work, what would you praise?

0lessdazed10yHow do those feel when one is doing them?
0NancyLebovitz10yMacro efficiency is taking time to think and then having things well-organized. Micro-efficiency (moving well) feels easier and much more pleasant.

I'll own my downvote. This article seems more directing us to a particular hypothesis of how to manipulate/teach children than really telling us anything informative about it.

Further, I somewhat disagree. Especially about not telling young women they look good. First of all, anything they put effort and resources in to that I genuinely enjoy the results of, I am going to tell them about. I am a human male, they are human females, they put a tremendous amount of mindspace, talent, and effort in to looking good, I'll be gosh darned if I am not going to... (read more)

The OP is talking about very young children. Specifically, children so young that they don't have a meaningful choice about what clothes they wear.

I'll talk with my son about the possible existence of latent sexism in society and how he might react to it when he's old enough to understand. Since he's not yet two, I limit myself to not freaking out if he picks up and plays with a doll.

Why would I want my daughter to work hard at math and then miss a job offer to do math because a competing interviewer was epsilon better turned out?

This is a false contradiction. It is totally possible to dress well as a woman without being "girly" or "sexy." To the extent that woman are expect to put effort into dressing "feminine" when men are not expected to put in similar effort to appear "masculine" in order to achieve the same success, this is a bug and not a feature.

My anecdotal evidence (a very headstrong 4yo daughter) matches this post. Good one.

For a specific example, I made my first charge like my favorite of the little-kid shows by saying: "Ooo! Kim Possible is on! You love this show!" She soon internalized it, and it became one of her favorites. There is of course a limit to this. No amount of saying "That show is boring", and "You don't like that show" could convince her that Wonderpets was NOT super-awesome.

I was just about to say, my parents tried this quite often on my younger siblings and it didn't seem very effective. Maybe there's a hard age-limit - it stops working after 5 or so?

1faul_sname10yMy parents also tried this quite a lot, and still do when they have the opportunity. I found that a statement of "you like/want X" caused me to have an opinion about X, I'm reasonably confident this caused me to have the opposite inclination at least as often as the intended one. I don't think there's an age limit on this tactic having some effect, though not necessarily the intended one (though there is at least some projection from my own experience going on there, so discount accordingly).
-1daenerys10yYes, there is definitely an age limit to where this has less effect, but I think it works a little bit even on adults. Then you're getting Dark Artsy. The big point is that you can't get them to like something they already dislike, or vice versa. But you can get them from neutral to like/dislike. For example, if she LOVES Wonderpets, then saying that she doesn't like Wonderpets is completely false, and ignored. But if she thinks Dora is decent, THEN saying that she loves Dora (maybe getting her some Dora games, if you REALLY want her to have that belief) is much more effective.
4wedrifid10ySomething in here seems backwards!
0brilee10yWhy is it dark arts only if you do it to adults? I'd say if anything, it's even darker if you do it to children
2TimS10yIt depends substantially on what we mean by "dark arts." Generally, I think of dark arts as persuasion techniques that are effective at changing someone's mind without relying on that person's rationality. The important lesson is that deliberately circumventing the rational process of another is wrong. But children (especially young children) just aren't rational by adult standards. So, is it a kind of dark art to take advantage of some irrational thinking process for the purpose of improving little Johnny's future rationality? It's deliberately avoiding the (mostly non-existent) rational process of the child. But it doesn't seem wrong. That said, the example about changing aesthetic preferences is hard to justify on "improving future rationality" grounds. Which doesn't necessarily make it wrong, but it certainly is a closer question.

Just thought I would comment on this:

I know it's hard, but DON'T tell little girls that they look cute, and DON'T comment on their adorable little outfits, or their pony-tailed hair.

Actually, I don't think I would ever find this difficult. An adorable child is one who is using their toy dragon to level their toy castle. But I do agree that this is a behavior our society encourages, and that it is quite widespread. I feel a bit ambivalent about this kind of advice, though. I think there are benefits to discouraging this type of behavior in the adul... (read more)

9Prismattic10yRead this [http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html?c=y&page=1] . Make sure not to miss the picture of little Franklin Roosevelt in his frilly dress.
4christina10yUpvoted for your very relevant article selection. Yes, I was aware of both the pink/blue reversal and the unbreeched boys practice. The insanely rapid (at least if considered on an evolutionary timescale) pink/blue reversal in particular indicates to me that some things are entirely culture. I think the young Louis XV [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LouisXVchild.jpg] is even more apropos to illustrate the sentence you responded to from my post. In fact, I'll go add that link in now... Still, regardless of where my preferences come from, I don't particularly want our culture to return to dressing all children in frilly little dresses. I see this as entirely consistent with my dislike of frilly little dresses. Even so, I understand that not everyone has my preferences, so my hope is to live in a society that increasingly doesn't demand that people conform to whatever the majority preference is. Rather than, say, living in a world where wearing frilly little dresses is banned for people of any gender.

This seems to me roughly opposite to your earlier comment. They could both be true, but more specific information should be used to justify them. Yes, there is some evidence that it's better to praise children's work then innate explanations for their results, but it's pretty weak evidence and it's not clearly relevant to the other examples. (In fact, your link seems to claim the opposite about appearance: girls figure out what actions they can take to increase the compliments.)

4daenerys10yI do not understand how you reached this conclusion. My earlier comment said that when people complement you (an adult), that you should accept their compliment. This post says that when you complement children, that you should do so in a way that is most beneficial to their development. Can you explain how you reached the conclusion that these are opposite statements? I specifically mention that this information is based on anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and general knowledge. I agree that I would like more evidence. If you know of any, please share! I do not think that it is inconsistent to say that society teaches young girls that their appearances are of prime importance, so THEN girls take action to increase those complements. It is a cause and effect. Think of it this way; if instead girls (and boys) grew up getting complements on their work-ethic, or on their , THEN they will still take action to increase those complements, but now those actions focus on , and not on looks. I am downvoting your comment (I dislike random downvotes, so I try to "claim" mine), because I can't make any rational sense of it. But if you clarify so that I can understand your argument, I will upvote!

Your earlier comment said to act normally. This post says not to act normally. Maybe the girls will notice your failure to provide expected praise and be hurt. Actually, you give two logically independent suggestions here: 1. not to talk about girls' looks and 2. to talk about something else. It is only the first that is at odds with the previous comment.

Sure, in isolation the claim about praise of looks makes sense, but it is opposite to the claim about praise of intelligence. Why does praising children's intelligence cause them to give up, while praising girls' looks causes them to put effort into the looks?

Why does praising children's intelligence cause them to give up, while praising girls' looks causes them to put effort into the looks?

I interpreted most of what you wrote as reflexive contrarianism with relatively little insight until I got to this part at the very end. Once you restated the claim in a very generic form "Praising X will induce more X, but praising Y will induce less Y" it called attention to the internal features of X and Y as being necessary to predict what will actually happen.

Once I understood the dichotomy here, I realized that I had no coherent theory about which trait-like surface features could be dropped in for X or Y to be suppressed or promoted by praise. My guess is that there's something that's actually pretty complicated going on here with cached selves, behaviorist conditioning, the fundamental attribution error, folk theories of human performance, and probably other stuff as well. I imagine I could have a somewhat evidence based working hypothesis for an answer 18 months from now if I keep my eyes and mind open but it seems clear to me that I don't have an answer of that quality right now.

Thank you for pushing forward in the face of d... (read more)

9Normal_Anomaly10yis not isomorphic to "praising x will cause less x and praising y will cause more y". Praising intelligence causes kids to emphasize intelligence and de-emphasize competing explanations, e.g. hard work. Praising looks causes kids to emphasize looks and de-emphasize competing (for time) qualities, e.g. knowledge. In both cases praising x causes more x, and also less other stuff because of opportunity cost.
4Douglas_Knight10yThanks, but I'm pretty sure it was an error, both on LW and in real life. Moreover, responding to comments on LW is generally a bad idea because people will read them without reading the context.
2Desrtopa10yIt's awfully hard to learn to be smarter. If you teach a kid that their success or failure is determined by how intelligent they are, then (according to Carol Dweck, whose research is linked elsewhere in this thread,) when they have difficulty completing a task, they will tend to conclude that they aren't smart enough, which they are unlikely to be able to do anything about. If they're conditioned to believe that success or failure is primarily dependent on effort, then if they encounter a task that they have difficulty with, they will be more inclined to believe that they aren't trying hard enough. Given that there are multibillion dollar industries focused on presentation and modification of personal appearance, there is no shortage of ways for a person to put effort into their appearance. Avenues for intelligence modification are pretty minimal by comparison.
1TimS10yThere's a lot of contested meaning in the word "normal." Girls hardly need compliments on their looks in order to grow into well adjusted women. There's substantial debate about whether to praise children's characteristics or effort. The OP is a brief discussion with anecdotes about that topic.
0[anonymous]10yThe last comment talked about how to accept praise, and this comment talks about knock-on effects of giving praise (to very young children). Receiving vs. giving doesn't seem contradictory to me.

I know it's hard, but DON'T tell little girls that they look cute, and DON'T comment on their adorable little outfits, or their pony-tailed hair.

Looks like the author is overcompensating.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.

Well, it is the first thing you notice, so why pretend otherwise? You can certainly start by complimenting a girl's appearance (tends to improve the mood of a girl of any age), without making a big deal out of it, before getting into a more soul... (read more)

I don't think the author's OVERcompensating. There may come a time when little girls are insufficiently told that they look adorable, but I seriously doubt that today is that time, nor that we have happened to stumble through memetic evolution onto the exactly correct amount to be complimenting little girls on their looks.

My own take is that if this is a little girl you see a LOT of (like, say, your daughter) then you might occasionally congratulate them on looking nice (especially if you know that they DID put some effort into it), but as a random stranger operating on timeless decision theory, the author's advice is pretty sound.

(Edit: and no, you're not being dishonest by telling them the first thing you notice, any more than you'd be lying to refrain from telling a below average child that they are stupid or ugly when you first meet them)

6Dorikka10yYour opinion makes sense to me, but I don't really understand how it involves TDT. My thoughts would probably be more along the lines of "not enough people talk to little girls this way, and it would probably help them be happier in the future if I did so."
0Raemon10yThe initial statement was off the cuff and not really well thought out. The followup statement in the next comment down is probably more accurate.
3shminux10yA person puts a lot of effort into something, you notice the good job they have done, but refuse to let them know that you have noticed it, and justify your actions with the (not-yet-formalized) TDT? I believe that my post on blind spots [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/8xn/what_is_your_rationality_blind_spot/] would be relevant here, sorry.
5Raemon10yMy prior on cute little girls is that their parents put them in a dress, and that their work mostly consisted off putting up with it. ("Little girl" is ambiguous - as they grow up the prior on how much effort they're personally putting in obviously goes up). I believe there are negative consequences to to overcomplimenting them on looks, same way there are negative consequences to being told you're smart. There may very well turn out to be consequences of being told too often that you're hard working. There are also, I'm sure, negative consequences to not being told you're pretty often enough. A perfect agent probably spends some time figuring out how to tell when young girls looked good due to their own efforts, compares how often they instinctively compliment that over other ways they might begin the conversation (perhaps taking note of how often they begin conversations with young boys who look particularly well dressed with things like "Who's this handsome little man!") and then randomly decide whether to do so. Even without regarding how the rest of society also will impact the child, I doubt the ideal number comes out to more than 1 in 6 or so for the average person. If you don't have time to do all that, I think beginning conversations with "how are you?" and going from there is a perfectly good heuristic. If the girl is particularly proud of her clothes, I suspect it'll come up, and you can compliment her then.
0shminux10yTrue, but it can still be a trial for someone that young. I strongly suspect that you made this number up on the spot. If not, I would be interesting to hear how you arrived to it, and what the error bars are.
2Raemon10yOh the 1 in 6 number was totally made up, and was anchored by thinking about randomization which made me think about dice which made me think about 10 sided dice (because I'm a gamer and that's what comes first time mind), which made me think about "1 in 100" chances as compared to "1 in 10" chances, and the latter seemed like a reasonable upper bound on how often you shoud compliment a girl on her looks (based on intuition), and then in case 1 in 10 was still too high I went up to the next most recognizeable dice-size, which was 1-6. I'm NOT a perfect agent with infinite time, and I haven't thought about this particular instance of this problem before today. But I suspect the upper bound for how often girls need complimenting on their looks from strangers is somewhere in that order of magnitude. I don't think that there's much useful ground between using your intuition and doing a bunch of intensive research. I could see the answer ranging from 1 in 20 to 1 in 6ish (I'm trying to imagine 1/5 as a viable answer and failing, but at this point I'm hopelessly anchored). That's in the world where everyone in society is trying to do this at once, as opposed to a minority of agents operating against huge cultural biases.
-2fetidodor10yThis does not sound believable to me. I very much doubt that a perfect agent would find these sorts of questions to be well-defined. It sounds like you're talking about the likelihood of a bulkhead failure or something completely technical ... when this is not technical at all.
5TimS10yThe amount of input my son puts into choosing his clothes is zero (because he's not even two). When he's older, the proportion of the clothing selection process that's based on his input is highly likely to increase. An agent can't measure or estimate the proportion for a particular child? An agent can't (or shouldn't) change her interaction with a child based on the estimate proportion?
7Vaniver10yFrom Lord Chesterfield, writing in 1747 [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3361/3361-h/3361-h.htm#2H_4_0019] (i.e. this advice is older than America), emphasis mine:

I once heard that Casanova once said that his secret to seducing women was to compliment the beautiful on their intelligence and the intelligent on their beauty.

0daenerys10yYou mis-quoted my post (I never wrote the second part of your "quote"), and I think that your paraphrase does not accurately represent the point I am trying to make. A better paraphrase would be: "The world tells girls that their looks are more important than anything, and you shouldn't reinforce this belief."
3daenerys10yRetracted- When your post first went up, the quotes were joined to look like a single quote. Now that they are separated, I can see that the second quote is from the article link. Sorry! Thanks for the fix! To clarify- The first quote is mine, the second quote is from the article link.
2shminux10ySorry about that, I should have been clearer as to the quotes' origin. I tend to edit my comments for a few minutes after they are posted, because there is no preview feature. By the way, if you ever want to delete a retracted comment, refresh the page, and the "delete" option will magically appear, provided no one replied yet.
0daenerys10yThanks for the info! I didn't know that. Normally if I look at a comment again, it is because someone replied, so I never noticed a delete button that appears if there are no replies. Very useful!