Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Bright, Shiny Moments

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Yesterday morning I boarded a flight for my first business trip in more than two-and-a-half years.  And while I was sad to leave my boys behind for a couple of days, there was a certain excitement about the fresh start implicit in this trip.  As I neared the end of the jetway I saw the sun glinting off of the silver body of the airplane, through the dingy window of the jetway, and straight into my eyes.  It seemed fitting for the moment.  I felt bright and shiny.

It made me think about my first flight.  I was eleven years old and we were flying to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle, go to Disneyland, drive up the coast, and experience the wilds of  the coast.  My excitment for the trip was huge as there were near countless things to look forward to.  But my excitment for the flight was particularly intense.  Most of my friends had flown somehwere before, so there was the eagerness to shed my self-consciousness at not having done.  But in my mind, whether from movies or books or stories from somewhere, flying was a glamorous thing to do.  I wore a dress because I couldn’t stomach the thought of not dressing up for my flight.  And when we reached the gate area I ran into a friend from summer camp, making me feel very worldly, and our parents swapped seats so that she and I could sit together.  It was a big day.

As I made this little trip back in time it dawned on me that none of my sons will have any recollection of their first flight.  IEP and SSP were both roughly 10 weeks old when we flew to visit my parents during my maternity leaves.  JDP was just shy of his second birthday when he flew home from Korea.  They will never remember those moments.  Further, they will never remember a time when boarding a flight was something exciting (the flight itself, that is - not just the destination at the other end).  It made me a little sad.  But then, why should it?

I don’t remember my first ride in a car, and I feel no nostagic hole where that memory should go.  I’m sure that when I was about two days old I was loaded up into a car and driven home from the hospital.  And I’m sure that I’ve ridden in a car nearly every day since.  A car ride doesn’t need to be something exciting for me.  Perhaps the same is true of my kids and air travel.  Perhaps my sense of loss over a memory that will never exist for them is a bit like someone much older feeling regret that I don’t have memories of my first call on a touch-tone phone.  Some things don’t hold the same meaning for one generation as they did for an earlier geneartion.

When you get down to it I think the thing that matters is not the excitement for boarding a plane.  What matters is the excitement at a big moment in your life.  For me, because I was old enough to have built up a great amount of anticipation around that flight it was a big moment.  This morning, because I’m excited about my new job and the opportunity it holds, my first trip with this company was a big moment.  As long as my kids still get excited about big moments – anticipate them, relish in them, and never take them for granted –  then I think we’re probably doing okay.  For me, my first flight was a big moment.  For them it wasn’t.  But something else will be.

Competing Priorities

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Last week GAP and three buddies from work went to one of the baseball League Championship Series playoff games.  Due to company connections these guys usually watch baseball games from a box or similar prime locations.  Playoff tickets, however, are a bit harder to come by so last week they were in the upper deck – a.k.a. Family-ville.

GAP was the only one of the four who is married or has kids, so for most of the group their setting gave them a slight fish-out-of-water feeling.  Sitting in front of GAP and his bachelor cronies was a family with a baby and a five-year-old.  Sitting behind them were a man and his eight- or nine-year-old son.  It was this duo that most caught his attention.

The game started at 7:00.  Like most evening baseball games, it likely wasn’t going to end until close to 10:00.  It was a school night.  But when your team is in the playoffs, well, that’s serious business.  What’s a pint-sized fan to do?  And what are his parents to do in such a battle of competing priorities?  Which one wins?

Answer: Both.

That night this boy and his dad avidly cheered on the home team throughout the game.  But in between innings?  In that momentary lull that takes place 17 times in any baseball game as the teams switch from offense to defense and back again?  They pulled out the school books and the boy worked on his homework.

I smiled as GAP told me about this.  I thought about the eagerness of a little boy excited to attend a playoff game.  I thought about the conversation he probably had with his parents wherein he was made to understand that this was a privilege, and that it did not supersede his academic responsibilities.  His dad would have told him how it was going to be hard to focus on his schoolwork with the excitement of the game, but that they would get through it together.  And I thought about someday having a similar conversation with GAP and my own boys.

Sometimes life deals us tough choices.  Sometimes we have to pick between Door #1 and Door #2 and we don’t have the option of a hybrid selection.  But sometimes we can find a way to finagle ourselves into the middle ground.  Such opportunities are hard to overlook.  It made me happy knowing that this boy’s parents didn’t let him blow off his school work, but also understood the how exciting a playoff game opportunity was.

Sometimes we get to split the middle.  Sometimes we get to honor competing priorities.  And if it’s the middle of baseball postseaston  sometimes a night of homework becomes a lifelong memory.

An Army of Gadgets

Friday, October 14th, 2011

As of last night three of the four most recent posts on NYT’s Motherlode dealt in some way with kids’ access to technology (television, Facebook, and iPads, respectively).  None of these posts is especially substantial, but their sandwiched nature points to something that intrigues me: we really know very little about how each of these screen-oriented gadgets affects our children.

We know the most about television.  Various studies over the years have told us that it negatively impacts their attention spans, critical thinking skills, physical fitness, and interpersonal skills.  I can only assume that being glued to Facebook or an iPad aren’t that different.  And yet we live in a world where these things are ubiquitous; only the most dedicated of parents will successfully navigate their children’s childhoods without exposure to them.

GAP and I took I pretty hard line for the first two years of IEP’s life.  He was allowed in the room while we watched news or sports, neither of which really captured his attention.  But he wasn’t allowed to watch any children’s programming until after his second birthday, and even then it was a very rare occasion.  Seeing the way his eyes glazed over – captivated, but unresponsive – told me that whatever was going on in my little boy’s brain wasn’t good.  It was only as he developed the ability to interact with the show – shouting out the answers to Dora’s questions, or laughing at Steve’s jokes on Blues Clues – that I developed some peace of mind that his viewing wasn’t putting him into a Clockwork Orange-like trance.

This was the path GAP’s and my guts told us to take.  But we still don’t exactly know what effect this exposure will have on our little boy.  Neither do we know what effect his exposure to iPhones (he’s been able to navigate GAP’s since he turned two), or iPads (Nanny has one that she uses for educational apps periodically) will ultimately have on him.  Facebook isn’t in his vocabulary yet, but if there’s anything I can count on it’s that his interest in social networking will sprout much earlier than I expect it to.

Given all of this, I am prone to wonder – after a certain age, at least – whether a cold turkey approach or something more permissive is healthiest for our kids.  Perhaps no technology at all is best for young kids.  Perhaps the only thing such indulgences achieve are a few quiet moments for Mom and Dad, and nothing beneficial for the child himself.  Or perhaps (and this is the direction I’m leaning, though I’m not fully confident of it) the better direction is something of a hybrid.  Our kids will never live in a world without smartphones and iPads (at least not until the next thing replaces them…), so what good does complete denial do them if it doesn’t represent reality.  (In a sort-of-applicable parallel, most of what I’ve read about kids and nutrition instructs that we should teach our children how to balance healthy and unhealthy foods, rather than declaring war on French fries and chicken nuggets altogether.)  So is a combined approach better?  If our kids can watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine and still want to read books before bed is that preferable to requesting a book only because they don’t know that Thomas exists?  (Yes, I know that the Thomas behemoth started out as a simple book.  We have many Thomas books…)

With our second child on the near horizon I also wonder how we’ll chart these waters during his first two years.  IEP knows that Saturday mornings are his time to watch his shows.  Will we pull the rug out from under him just because his baby brother is within earshot?  Likely not, but how we’ll minimize #2′s exposure remains to be seen.

The one thing that I take a bit of comfort in when it comes to issues like this is that we won’t get it 100% right, but we won’t get it 100% wrong either.  We care greatly about our kids’ mental development.  We work to ensure that they are exposed to many different settings and circumstances.  We teach them manners and initiative and boundaries.  It would take an army of tech gadgets to drown out the influence that we spill into our kids’ ears each day.

We may not know what the exact right answer is to our questions about kids and technology.  But we do know that if we’re asking the questions in the first place we’re probably on the right track.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Monday, July 18th, 2011

If you are a 10-ish-year-old boy named Will from St. Louis, the whole “back to school” affair that’s coming up in a few weeks just got a lot more exciting.  The end of day camps, and cannon balls, and chasing down the ice cream truck are about to draw down for the year.  I suspect this would be a huge letdown for most little boys.  And perhaps it will be for Will too.  But when Will goes back to school next month he will likely be asked, in front of all his classmates, what he did on his summer vacation.

Will will sit patiently while he listens to stories of grandma’s house and Disney World and beach trips from his classmates.  And when it is his turn Will will stand up and say, “I danced on stage with Bono in front of 56,00 people.”  And with that statement Will wins the summer vacation sweepstakes.   (Assuming, of course, that Will’s pint-sized classmates grasp how unlikely and how awesome such an event is…)  I’m pretty sure nothing tops that.

I think we have defining moments in our lives.  For most of us they include things like wedding days, childbirth, professional conquests, and sometimes tragedy.  But many of us also have little moments of fortune that create huge memories.  Things like catching a home run fly ball, or winning the science fair, or getting pulled up onstage by Bono for the better part of “City of Blinding Lights.”

I don’t know what kind of impression his rock star treatment will leave on young Will.  I know that I was beyond excited on his behalf.  I know that I will remember him walking around that stage with Bono holding his hand.  I know that it was an experience that millions of people around the world might dream of, but that Will himself may not understand that for a number of years.

But that’s the thing about these defining moments: what is pivotal for one person may not be for another.  We all interact with the world in our own ways, and are impacted by things differently.  That’s part of what makes life so interesting.  Will may go on to have an astounding life in which an onstage appearance with Bono is merely a footnote.  Or he may think back on that moment filled with adrenaline and excitement for the rest of his life.  I’ll never know.  But today I’m thinking back on some of the more pivotal moments in my life, and they are making me smile.

All Aboard!

Friday, July 15th, 2011

When I was a little girl my grandparents lived in a town about an hour away from us.  Occasionally, when my parents were out of town, my sister and I would go stay with Grandmother and Granddaddy.  My memories of those visits are filled with happiness: building towers out of Grandmother’s canned goods, learning to sew buttons onto scrap pieces of fabric stretched over embroidery hoops, meeting Granddaddy at the top of the hill as he walked home from work, feeding the Canada geese that lived at the hospital pond behind my grandparents’ house, and getting dressed up for dinner out at the Chinese restaurant across the street.

But one of my favorite memories is from lunches at home with Grandmother and Granddaddy.  We ate in the train room.

Once upon a time the train room was the shared bedroom of my dad and my uncle.  I was told that in past years the walls were covered in team penants and sundry high school memorabilia.  By the time grandkids came around it had been converted into a sitting room, of sorts, with a drop leaf table next to the window.  This repurposed room became known as the train room because we so often ate lunch there at that table in the window, pretending that we were in the dining car of a passenger coach, on our way to someplace exciting.

Looking back (and through the eyes of a parent, now) I suspect that the train room was invented to make a simple lunch at home something exciting, glamorous even, and something to be eagerly anticipated.  Interestingly, this doesn’t take away any of the magic.  As I think back on our lunches in the train room I feel just as excited (mixed with some nostalgia) as I did back then.  Grandmother and Granddaddy wanted our visits to be fun and adventuresome.  And for two imaginative little girls, the premise of a railroad journey was a repeat hit.

I’ve been thinking back on the train room lately because IEP is a boy obsessed with trains.  He takes Thomas and Percy and Molly on our morning walks, down for naps, and up and down the stairs ad nauseum to ensure that they’re never far away.  And beginning this week he has started identifying any paved path (usually a sidewalk) as train tracks.

We walk two miles every morning (big dogs + small yard = lots of walking) and nearly none of our neighborhood streets has sidewalks.  But for the single stretch of our route that does have sidewalks IEP instructs me daily, “Mommy, ride on the train tracks!”  And each morning as I veer onto the sidewalk he shouts, “All aboard!!  Choo choo!”  And every time he says it I am taken back to the train room – to macaroni and cheese served in big mugs; to canned fruit on a bed of lettuce topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip and a sprinkling of cinnamon; to brown stained pedastal glasses that were filled with iced tea for Grandmother and Granddaddy and with milk for Anne and me; and to that big picture window of our dining car where we imagined that we were headed to new and exciting places.

Grandmother passed away a few years ago, and in one of my last visits with her she took a long and meandering trip back in her memory to the stacking of canned goods, the sewing of buttons, and lunches in the train room.  I can see now how much those times meant to her – that even as her mind faded these were the memories she still saw clearly.

Granddaddy is still here - 91 now, and sharp as a tack.  I try to visit him whenever I’m home, and when I do we talk about work, travel, current events, and IEP’s latest conquests.  We haven’t talked about the train room in a very long time.  But I know his memory of it is every bit as bright as my own.  There are just some things that we don’t forget.  And sometimes, when very little boys get excited about pretending that sidewalks are train tracks, we are flooded by our own memories of imagined dining cars and cross-country adventures.

Saucer Magnolias

Friday, March 25th, 2011

The saucer magnolias are in bloom.  I look at them and I see the front yard of the fraternity house.  His fraternity house.  And also my fraternity house.  The one where he courted me, in that casual college way.  I see the saucer magnolia off to the left, its purple and white petals on the ground like confetti. I see college guys in t-shirts, cargo shorts, and flip flops with a beer in one hand and a frisbee in the other.  I see us on the porch, procrastinating, before eventually caving and walking to our corporate finance class together even though we both want to sit on that porch and continue to flirt with each other.  I see us return from class and drop our backpacks on the ground sliding back into conversations that we left behind 50 minutes ago.  I see myself looking back over my shoulder as I leave, headed to the dining hall for supper, walking through fallen petals across the yard.

The Bradford Pears are in bloom.  I look at them and I see my high school.  I see its brick towers and pitched roofs.  I see high school kids filtering out through the gymnasium exit to the parking lot, uniform shirts untucked since the bell has rung.  I see track practice in full swing.  I see myself linger in that parking lot, spinning my car keys around my index finger, not wanting to go home for fear of missing something important to an insecure 17-year-old.  I see the Bradford Pear trees lining the drive, and I smell their scent.  They are not sweet, but strongly pungent in a way that is only pleasing based on connotation.  Yet my connotations never fade, and I love the smell of Bradford Pear blossoms.

The forsythia are in bloom.  I look at their gangly yellow branches and I see the side yard of my childhood home.  I see the triangular flower bed in the corner of the yard with the un-pruned forsythia limbs hanging in arcs.  I see my mother’s vegetable garden, dug in the shape of my home state, partly because my dad has a sense of humor, and partly because he got sick of digging.  I see the shed attached to the side of the house that my dad built with help from church friends.  And I see my handprints in the concrete ramp that was built for the riding lawnmower.  I see my mother explaining to me for the eighteenth time which one is forsythia and which ones are photinia.

The daffodils are in bloom.  I look at them and I see every tree in my parents’ yard surrounded by daffodils.  I see them cut in vases on our breakfast table.  I see the little ones in bud vases on my mother’s bill-paying desk.  I see myself smelling them, knowing that they don’t smell like much, but wanting to believe that they do.

The hyacinths are in bloom.  I look at them and I see my son’s first spring.  I see the day that our nanny was sick and I spent the day at home with my five-month-old baby.  I see myself sitting on our front porch with him, holding pieces of mulch so that he could feel them.  I see myself pick up a broken hyacinth bloom that had fallen under the weight of its own petals.  I see him reach for it, grasp it, and carry it to his mouth.  I see myself take a series of photos of my baby with a pink flower.  I take the bruised blossom from him and smell it, knowing that these smell the way I think spring should smell.

The saucer magnolias are in bloom, and they bring with them an avalanche of memories.

The Playground Hypothesis

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I’m testing a hypothesis here. 

A couple of weeks ago I went on a research bender in preparation for one of my posts on children and achievement.  As a part of that bender I read an article from Psychology Today entitled “A Nation of Wimps” wherein the author posits that “parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile.”  The article is long and covers a lot of ground about parenting young kids and how our parenting decisions influence the kind of adults they become.  Touching on topics from playgrounds to binge drinking to cell phones it sheds light on a many parenting dilemmas.  I highly recommend it.

One of the topics covered by the article that most intrigued me (but which did not dovetail with my prior posts referencing it) was free play.  I have explored the topic of free play in the past, but the “Wimpy Kids” article prompted me to consider it afresh.  It begins by describing a hypothetical-but-realistic playground scene in which the parents do not chat on park benches, but rather stand right next to their kids, “co-playing” and coaching them through the playground.  When I was a kid any snapshot of a playground outing pictured all of the parents on park benches, chatting away and keeping half an eye on their kids while they enjoyed some adult conversation.  Apparently this is no longer the case.

The article goes on to describe the larger implications of the decline in free play: 

“In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees. … Kids are having a hard time even playing neighborhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. ‘They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what color socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.’”

So there it is, plain as day: free play is really good for our kids.  Or, perhaps more pointed, a lack of free play is really bad for our kids.  Given this, why have we as parents, coaches, and educators let this vital part of childhood die off?  If we know it is good for our kids, and we know that constantly hovering around them – whether it’s to ensure matching socks or to encourage them to pick the big slide – is damaging, then why do we do it?

This brings me to my hypothesis.  If we sit back and are uninvolved in our kids’ play we feel neglectful.  If we let them work the puzzle alone while we respond to an e-mail; if we let them dig in the dirt outside on their own while we flip through a magazine or fold laundry; if we are not actively cultivating their minds at all times then we think we are lazy, indulgent, and selfish parents.  We positively swim in the guilt of it. 

Yet the research shows that our parenting would be improved by a longer leash.  Our kids will end up more balanced and capable if we get out of their faces a little bit.  Psychology Today tells us, “The less time children spend in free play, the less socially competent they’ll be as adults. It’s in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of others and how to negotiate conflicts.”

So I ask you, do you let your kids play on their own?  Or do you feel the pull to involve yourself in their play, encouraging learning and guiding their interactions?  The research is unequivocal – we need to back off.  But the cultural pressures to hover are strong.  We feel like slackers when we take a step back.  But I think we owe it to our kids to quit trying so hard.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and she’s coming for yours…)

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter* reads a little bit like a post-feminist woman’s anthem: We are facilitating the indoctrination of our young girls to the detriment of our entire culture.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  That said, I’ve never heard our national anthem performed at the start of an event and thought, “Is this really necessary?  Can’t we just skip this part?”  The answer is obviously No.  We can’t skip this part.  We go over it and over it and over it because it is important; too important to ignore.

I plunged into this book from a place of unsure footing.  Was I reading it as a former girl?  Was I reading it as the possibly-future mother of a girl?  (Right now I have one son, although we plan to have more kids.)  Or was I just reading it as a curious adult who likes to keep her finger on the pulse of our culture?  I didn’t know.  But by the end of the book I realized, it really didn’t matter.  The cultural tidal wave presented in Cinderella ultimately affects us all – whether parents, teachers, hiring managers, or anyone else.  If you know a woman or girl under the age of 25, you have come face to face with Princess culture whether you realized it or not.

To grossly over summarize the premise of the book, it is about how American adults (with the power of the purse) have allowed a marketing bonanza to preordain for their daughters how they play.  And permitting that preordination of play weaves a complex web of side effects that can, if left unchecked, trap our girls (and eventually our young women) into the worst possible versions of themselves.

Synergy! That business school buzzword bounced around my brain as I read Orenstein’s book.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is not any one aspect of Princess culture that will become our young girls’ undoing.  It is the aggregate effect that scares me.

Each of these things accounts for just a drop in the bucket.  But take a look at the bucket and you’ll realize how significant each drop is.  The onslaught of pink clothes and toys since 2000 at some level tells girls that they must love pink in order to be a girl.  The generic princess fairy tale tells them that they must be beautiful and well mannered and patient and helpless (and that all there is to wait for in life is a man to rescue you).  The pint-sized pageant set sends most parents running scared (while smugly congratulating ourselves that our girls don’t participate in such warped worlds).  Yet what exactly is the pageant circuit if not merely an exaggerated version of the princess culture that most girls live and breathe day in and day out.  Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez teach girls to whore out their virginity as badge of honor.  And online social networking sites further entrench the idea that the self is not something carefully cultivated from within, but rather a brand to be marketed to people she may or may not actually know in real life.

It starts with a plastic tiara.  But it ends someplace much more sinister.

This isn’t to say that if I have girls I won’t let a Sleeping Beauty costume cross the threshold of my home.  As I said, no single component of the Princess culture can take down an adolescent girl alone.  This means that I don’t have to be the princess police.  But it also means that I do have to take care in deciding what to permit and what to deny.  I will have to talk with my daughters about the culture they participate in.  I will have to know them well, understand to what extent they are internalizing their entertainment, and rein things in when necessary.  Orenstein herself confesses multiple moments of confusion and misstep.  I don’t expect to be any different.  Like many things, my own awareness will be an important first line of defense.

This whole world is still an arm’s length away from me.  But even if my family turns out to be all boys, I’ll still be glad I’ve read this book.  I might have come to this conclusion on my own, but one line toward the end of the book made the point obvious to me.  In the ninth chapter about the influence of the online world (which was probably the freakiest chapter in the book) Orenstein tells the story of a friend who found on her 14-year-old son’s computer topless photos of one of his classmates.  The parent commented, “We’re trying to teach our son that women are not playthings. … How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?”

And that, my friends, is why this matters to everyone.

As I reviewed all of my margin notes after finishing the book a passage in the chapter on pageants caught my attention.  Orenstein tells the story of a young pageant heavyweight (figuratively, not literally, of course) whose home life is complicated by a severely handicapped brother.  She explains that the pageant world perhaps gives this girl a time and place in which she can pretend that her life is as perfect as it looks.  Orenstein continues:

And isn’t that, at its core, what the princess fantasy is about for all of us?  “Princess” is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious.  “Princess” is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them.  “Princess” is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.

Written like that I might sign up for a powder pink ball gown myself.  But that’s not the end of it, is it?  Because even within the confines of a Disney movie there’s more to the story, isn’t there?  The great irony here is that the description above doesn’t even reflect the fairy tale.  Their lives are not so rosy as this.  These princesses are not valued for any of their abilities or intelligence.  They are frequently embattled against evil queens, step-sisters, or other enemies.  They are usually trapped in some way until a man can rescue them.  They are given two choices for vocation – life as a maid or life on a pedestal.  And they are condemned to an eternity of wearing a dress in which you cannot reasonably sit down.

On its surface Princess may seem like the innocent, utopian vision of what we want for our girls.  But when you look under all the tulle you see that it’s probably the last kind of life you’d want for your daughter.

Orenstein casts a bright light on something that has become so commonplace most of us didn’t realize it was worth discussing.  I’m glad she called us out on our oblivion.

*Disclosure – complimentary copy provided by publisher Harper Collins.

Success and Failure – Version 2 (From the Facts)

Friday, February 18th, 2011

A note about this post:  Fair warning… it’s long.  Once I started researching I realized that this topic really has legs.  I’ve done my best to keep it organized and concise, but in order to do this post justice I felt compelled to go beyond my typical 600 words and really delve into the many important aspects of this topic.  In case you haven’t been following along, you can click here to read my first post on children and achievement, and to learn why I’ve published two posts on the same topic in the first place.

Once again, it starts with Lindsey’s post on achievement last week.  In her discussion of the film “The Race to Nowhere” Lindsey addressed the multi-faceted nature of achievement and identity.  While she clarified that we can damage our kids by fostering the belief that their value is tied exclusively to their achievement, Lindsey pointed out that high standards are not always a bad thing.  I agreed, and wondered why we are reluctant to set a high bar for our kids.

My suspicion was that by ever praising children, even when their performance doesn’t warrant it, we actually undermine their desire to achieve in the first place.  If “everybody is a winner” then why bother to actually win?  Of course I don’t believe everything is a win/lose situation, but the stark language highlights my point.  Whether we are talking about sports, grades, standardized test scores, musical instruments, or even something highly subjective like art, various levels of achievement do exist.  And if we offer our praise unconditionally then children can quickly determine that there’s no need to go to all that effort if the pats on the back come free.

Neuro-researcher David Rock makes the point that, “When kids are praised for everything and told they are ‘special’ it does two things: It reduces their desire to put in effort, and it reduces their ability to self-regulate because they don’t get to challenge themselves. Yet self-regulation appears to be the dramatically central player in whether people succeed or not.”  Rock hints at something here.  In these scenarios filled with unearned praise kids miss out on something very important: actual mastery.  Kids will accept our praise regardless of circumstances.  But if we dole it out indiscriminately they will never have to work for it, and, in turn, they will never know the incredible experience of conquering something.

As stated by the Sydney Morning Herald (this is not a uniquely American problem), “The belief that regular praise will improve the self-esteem of students has backfired, with educators urging over-anxious parents to let their children fail so they can learn from their mistakes.”  But in order for any child to learn from his mistakes, he must first be allowed to make them.  How does anyone learn the fine art of picking up, dusting off, and carrying on if not from experience?  Rod Kefford, the headmaster of a Sydney day and boarding school put a finer point on it. “If we are serious about building resilience, we have to let them fail.”

Resilience is a refrain common to this discussion.  We want our kids to develop coping mechanisms, but we protect them from the very situations that build them.  Tufts University psychology professor David Elkind agrees, “Kids need to feel badly sometimes. We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

Interestingly, the ironic truth of the matter is that with helicopter parenting we squelch the very thing we hope to develop.  “Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences,” Psychology Today’s article on “wimpy” kids tells us.  This shielding fosters fear in kids.  When we protect them from stress early in life, they don’t learn how to deal with it, and often ultimately become withdrawn, shy, and introverted.

Going back to the issue of empty praise for a moment, though, I think there is another issue at hand: kids aren’t stupid.  They know when they’re being patronized.  When Larry Summers became president of Harvard University in the summer of 2001 he learned that 94% of graduating seniors had “earned” honors distinctions.  It doesn’t take a Harvard education to know that the honor doesn’t mean much at that point.  So what message does it send to kids and teens when we tell them ad nauseum that they are special?

I will take an example from my own life.  I used to know a girl (we’ll call her Katie).  Katie was bright, interesting, and very sweet.  And yet her self-esteem was virtually nonexistent.  One day I asked her boyfriend (also a friend of mine – we’ll call him Ben) how someone so smart, personable, and pretty could think so little of herself.  He explained that she grew up with a mother who inundated her with the message that she was brilliant and wonderful and could be whatever she wanted to be.  It sounds great on the surface but Ben (in a psychology PhD program at the time) gave an example of its detriment.  He said, “I could say to Katie’s mom, ‘I’m never going to be an astronaut and that really bums me out.’  And Katie’s mom would say, ‘But of course you can, Ben.  You can be whatever you want to be!’  The fact is, I can’t be an astronaut.  I don’t have the interest or education, and I’m probably too old to shift gears at this point anyway.  But Katie’s mom is so set on being supportive that she can’t be honest.  After 20 years of that, Katie got the message that all praise is completely hollow, and now she doesn’t believe anything positive or affirming that is said to her.”

Katie wasn’t stupid.  Neither are the bottom decile of Harvard grads who walk with honors.  And neither are the countless other kids who are fed well-intentioned-but-ultimately-damaging hot air by their parents every day.

The last component of this issue is the most difficult for me to address, partly because it’s uncomfortable and partly because I have little experience with it.  The problems I’ve highlighted to this point are problems of privilege.  Any kid whose risk factors include too much praise and support is probably leading a pretty easy life.  But there are 15 millions American kids who live in poverty.  That’s about 21% of our nation’s kids.  Most of them don’t have access to well-funded educational or extra-curricular programming.  And there are many of them who hear no praise; who get no support.

The National Center for Children in Poverty’s website tells me that:

  • At age 4 years, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months below what is normal for their age group.
  • By the third grade middle-income kids’ vocabularies are three times larger than the vocabularies of kids from low-income families.
  • Early learning classrooms comprised of about 60 percent of children from low-income homes were rated significantly lower in quality indicators of teaching, teacher-child interaction, and provisions for learning than classrooms with fewer low-income children.

These are real problems without easy solutions, but studies have shown that they are not insurmountable.  As you might expect, the needs of these kids differ vastly from those of their more privileged peers.  Research tells us that, “Children make academic gains when they have teachers that encourage communication and reasoning, are sensitive to their interactions with children, and construct an atmosphere of respect, encouragement, and enthusiasm for learning.”

Psychology Today endorses this view.  Its “wimpy kids” article concludes with this thought:  “Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it’s not being applied wisely. We’re paying too much attention to too few kids—and in the end, the wrong kids. There are kids who are worth worrying about—kids in poverty.  We focus so much on our own children. … It’s time to begin caring about all children.”

Interestingly enough, though, even in the face of incredible challenges, the NCCP still calls for high standards to be set for low-income kids.  In its list of Take Home Messages it advises that, “Teachers and administrators need to set high expectations for what all young children can and should learn.”  Apparently lowering the bar is never the right answer.

As I’ve thought about this issue throughout the week I’ve tried to envision what tack I will take with my own kids.  Here is where I have landed:  I will tell them I love them as often as I want to, which will almost assuredly be more than they want to hear it.  I will praise their accomplishments (real accomplishments) but I will not intervene to prevent their failures.  I will push them when I see unrealized potential paired with moments of mastery and moments of joy.  I will not push them if they are miserable because their interests and aptitudes are not aligned with their activities.  I will acknowledge effort and hard work.  I will turn their attention to character as well as performance.  I will understand that kids are not one-size-fits-all and I will adjust my approach for each kid at each phase of his/her life.  And, most importantly, I will fail at each of these things more than once, and that’s okay too.

None of it this is easy.  But I believe we can only come closer to the right answer when we ask the hard questions.

On Third Chances

Monday, February 7th, 2011

There was much about my transition from public to private school at the start of eighth grade that challenged me.  Most of it was social and cultural in nature.  I joined the ranks of an eighth grade class with remarkably few girls, which cast a bright spotlight on my arrival.  I knew only  a few people and had to make new friends at an impossibly awkward age.  And perhaps most difficult, I saw dollar signs everywhere I went.  It is no secret that the demographics of the prep school set differ vastly from those of your local junior high, which took some getting used to.

Thankfully for me, though, the academics came easily.  With two exceptions I was free from worry about the academic rigors of my new environment and able to throw myself fully into the social adjustments.  One of those exceptions was algebraic story problems, which I eventually mastered.  The other, interestingly enough, was writing.

Mrs. Elliott knew me pretty well at the start of eighth grade.  The previous spring she tutored me in Latin to help prepare me for the two years of it I’d missed in the sixth and seventh grades.  She knew I was smart.  She knew I was hardworking.  She knew what I was capable of.

Sometime in the first semester of that year her curriculum called for us to write an essay.  More than a book report and less than a senior thesis, we were assigned our first “paper.”  She expected us to use a thesis statement, and the A-B-B paragraph structure she’d taught us.  Our topic: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  I wrote and submitted my paper without much concern.  English was one of my strengths and I had no performance anxiety.  So naturally I was filled with shock and dread when Mrs. Elliott returned our papers to us and mine bled red marks throughout and offered a comment at the end which read something along the lines of, “Gale, this is not an acceptable submission for this assignment.  Please see me to discuss your rewrite.”  She didn’t even offer a grade.

Quelle horreur! A punch in the gut, to be sure.

After class I walked, heavy with embarrassment, up to Mrs. Elliott’s desk.  She was firm, but also gentle.  We arranged a time to talk further, at which point she explained to me that my paper was so far off the mark she realized that I didn’t fully understand the assignment.  We discussed paragraph structure and topic sentences at length.  Then she dismissed me to lick my wounds and rewrite my paper.

She received my second submission with slightly more enthusiasm.  It, too, bled red, but less so than my first attempt.  I scanned through her edits and markups, scared to turn to the final page and read my letter grade.  Little did I know that the words awaiting me on that page would, on some level, change me forever.  The grade was a C+.  The comment that followed it was, “Want to try again?”

I didn’t realize at the time the magnitude of her comment.  I was burdened by my initial failure, and hardly buoyed by my C+ consolation prize.  An A student my entire life, I now walked through unfamiliar and unpleasant territory.  I knew that I would write a third paper because I had no intention of leaving well enough alone with a C.  What I didn’t know was that I would remember her words for the next 19 years, and that they would bolster me against all manner of failure in many arenas of my life.

Perhaps it will sound trite, and Mrs. Elliott would never be trite, but in offering me a third chance what she really said was, “Gale, I believe in you.  I believe you are capable of more.  I want to see what else you can do.”

Things could have turned out differently.  It would have been easy for her to fail my first paper and let me learn my lesson the hard way.  It would have been easy for her to take my C+ effort as evidence that I was getting back on track and be done with our little coaching exercise.  Had either of those things happened I think it might have shaken my confidence as “an English student” irreparably.  I might not have matriculated into sophomore English as a freshman.  I might not have journaled every day for the next eight years of my life.  And I might not be here today, blogging three times each week about my thoughts, and self-identifying (finally) for the first time in my life as a writer.

Although I haven’t thought consciously about it in those moments, I believe that Mrs. Elliott’s confidence has guided me through many hardships in my life.  The lesson I learned from her (in addition to the proper construction of a topic sentence) was that I don’t have to accept my first attempt.  If I try and fail that isn’t necessarily the end of it.  I can try again for better results.  And I can try again after that if I’m still not satisfied.  If I’m capable of more, I can work for more.

Since I started this blog a handful of people have complimented my writing and advised that I should consider writing a book.  A few book ideas sit neatly in a corner of my brain, waiting for the right time to be written.  When that time comes, if my words are to be published, I will owe a great debt to Mrs. Elliott.  Actually, I already do.