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November 23rd, 2010

Don't call your child clever!

What kind of so-called parenting experts say don’t call your child clever? Since the sixties haven’t we been exhorted to extol the virtues of our children ad nauseam in the hope of building self esteem and encouraging desirable behaviours? When we want them to feel good about themselves we say well done darling, good girl. And if we think they’re not buying it or we really want to big them up we say ‘fantastic, marvellous, brilliant –you are so clever.’ What’s wrong with that?

Well, usually we say to parents that if they want their kids to have good self esteem and all the positive outcomes that go with that then we need to focus on what children do right more often than what they get wrong. Every parent knows this even though we sometimes have difficulty doing it –like when you’re trying to get them all out of the house and one is on a ‘go slow’ and the other two are complaining that they have to breathe the same air and you can’t find your car keys and NOBODY has got their shoes on!

But even when things are a little calmer we still feel an overwhelming urge to point out what’s wrong with what they’re doing. We’re not bad people but we’ve had decades of conditioning so forgive us if we mistakenly believe we need to highlight what they’ve done wrong in order to help them learn. In fact when we do that the children are apt to tune us out and lose their naturalmotivation to improve and to learn. So yes we do need to focus on the positives and praise our children. In fact  the ratio of positive to ‘improving’ should be about 9:1. John Gottman is a researcher who did a lot of work in the area of couples’ relationships. He found that there are a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. While you’re trying to remember when you last said something positive to your partner I would add that in the case of children parents should be praising even more frequently because we are actively trying to shape our children’s behaviour and form their characters. I would assert therefore that we parents should give 9 praises for every criticism/improving comment/correction / just pointing out what could be done differently.

So I’m clearly in favour of praise. But why can’t I tell my child he’s clever? Because he is you know –or at least I want him to do well. How can it hurt? In the past I would have said that any praise was better than none. But even then I would have admitted that there’s a good chance your child is not going to believe you when you say he’s clever so your words lose impact. We have always advocated using praise which is specific and descriptive to make it more credible and give the child enough information to allow them to repeat the positive behaviour on which you’re focusing. We would have said ‘clever girl’ isn’t a very effective form of praise but not actually harmful. And then I discovered some research by a psychologist in the US, Carol Dweck, that has made me even more careful about my choice of words when acknowledging children. Her research has shown that evaluative praise of this kind can actually be detrimental.

Professor Dweck’s findings show that the way adults praise children can determine whether they develop what she calls a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research was looking at motivation and perseverance in the face of set backs. Why do some people give up in the face of failure and others try again –it has to do, not surprisingly, with their beliefs about why they had failed. If you believe you failed because of lack of ability you are more inclined to give up than if you think the failure was down to lack of effort. Surely that’s an argument for telling kids they are able in order to motivate them?

Over the years Dweck developed a theory that learners could be classified as helpless vs mastery oriented. The former believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. “I call this a ‘fixed mind-set’. Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so….The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.… Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort.”

So how does praise affect this belief system? Contrary to adults’ good intentions when they praise, telling someone they are smart or clever actually contributes to the ‘fixed mindset’ whereas praising a child for trying hard or persevering focuses on the effort they’re making and allows them to develop a ‘growth mindset’. Dweck’s work with children in schools showed that confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material. The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little real regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

So how do we encourage a ‘growth mindset’ in our children? Show them examples of effort producing good results in your own modelling, in stories about other people but above all in their own endeavours. Praise them for not giving up, for trying a different strategy in the face of defeat, for working hard and practising, for improving and don’t focus so much on the outcome or achievement. If they do well in a test say “You must be really pleased -that’s a reflection of all the hard work you put in”. Above all never ever praise your child for being clever.

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November 11th, 2010

80% of parenting is modelling

Child using a phone

80% of parenting is modelling. It’s a really scary thought for most parents that eighty per cent of the teaching we do, eighty percent of the learning our children get in the family, most of what they imbibe and take on as values comes from them watching what we model and copying us! There may be a handful of parents who are relaxed about this having a clean conscience about their language, their attitudes, their manners and other behaviours. But for many of us this is a really pressurising idea. Especially if you consider all the possible areas our children may be subconsciously absorbing values that we didn’t intend to pass on to them.

When my children were little I despaired of them ever learning what I regarded as ‘nice’ table manners because I thought my husband, not me, was such a poor role model in this area. (Lovely as he was and is in many other ways.) But there were so many other areas where I wasn’t remotely aware that I was modelling behaviours. For example what attitudes do we model? When something is hard do we give up? I know if I have an IT issue or I reach the tiniest obstacle with something electronic I’ll wait till my husband can deal with it. (I told you he was nice). What am I teaching my kids – that there are areas that are completely beyond my expertise and I’m not going to try to improve but instead I’ll avoid dealing with those issues?

Still on the subject of attitudes what do you do when you get a parking ticket? (A very common occurrence in Wandsworth where I live.) Do you berate yourself for being such a fool for not putting enough money in the parking meter; do you say Daddy will be so cross that’s the third one this month; do you say don’t tell Daddy? If so what are we modelling for our children about dealing with mistakes? Are we teaching them that mistakes diminish us rather than being an opportunity for learning and should be covered up?

What about language? Have you ever heard your child on the phone sounding exactly like you? When I rang my five year old nephew recently he was very chatty and said “and how’s the family” in tones that sounded just like his mother! These are the positives of course. But how many of us emit an expletive or two in the hearing of our children and then get cross with them for doing the same? How do we handle our feelings? When I’m sad do I mooch around with a hang dog expression listlessly, sighing and finding it hard to get on with life. When I’m angry do I put others down or criticise or resort to sarcasm? What do I do when my self esteem is low? Do I do something to boost it or give up and withdraw? When I’m fed up with my kids do I tell them how rotten they are? If my children are fighting with each other do I smack the one I see as the perpetrator? What does smacking model? Is it telling my children that when they’re adults they too will be able to use their power to hurt but they’re not allowed to hit their brother now? When someone has upset me do I speak rationally to the person concerned or do I bottle up my feelings or explode? Do they see you resolving conflict well? Do they know you’ve made up with your partner after a fight and do they learn how you resolved things?

If you’re feeling a bit sick by now keep reading as it gets better.

If I want my children to develop good social skills what am I modelling around that? Do we all eat together at the table having conversations? Do they see me with my friends? Do they hear me talking positively about friends and family or do they get a litany of complaints? How you talk about your parents is how they’ll talk about you in adulthood!

What about lifestyle? We all know how important it is to encourage our children to eat well and take exercise and get enough sleep but what do they see us doing in these areas? Is your breakfast a cup of strong coffee and do they hear that you were up half the night? Do you exercise with your kids or on your own where there don’t see it? How do you talk to your kids about your own body shape and that of others? Do you moan about your own ‘deficiencies’ or make fun of others?

Do your kids ever see you reading? Do you discuss the contents of your book with them?

And what about the things that will affect them in the future? What do they see your work/life balance as?

I said it would get better. The good news is that as soon as our awareness is raised about these issues we’ve already taken a step forward. We start to think about what we do in front of the children. One of the most useful aspects of the parenting course I took 13 years ago was spending time each week working out what values I wanted to pass on to my children. At The Parent Practice we focus on this a lot.

Sometimes it’s just a case of making our children aware of the good things we’re doing that we want them to learn from such as kindnesses that we wouldn’t normally broadcast but we need to articulate to our children so that they can learn from it. When playing games with children we recommend you articulate your thought processes like this: oh no I’ve drawn a bad card! Never mind. I won’t make a fuss. Maybe I’ll get a good one next hand. Yes you will feel like a dork but your children are learning good lessons from this.

Sometimes of course it means curbing our bad habits or at least being conscious of not parading them in front of the children. Knowing the following facts about smoking (along with all the other ones you already know) may give you a bit extra incentive to give up. Children of parents who smoke:

  • Are twice as likely to take up smoking.
  • Assume that cigarette smoking is an acceptable way to handle stress and boredom. They see you do it all the time.
  • Develop a positive attitude toward smoking.
  • Are more tolerant of the unpleasant effects of cigarette smoke, such as odours, stained teeth and small burns on the carpet and furniture.

(Source: www.thestopsmokingguide.com)

Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.  Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values. For the record my kids’ table manners are fine now.

Melissa Hood

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