Thursday, September 26, 2013

Don't Do Your Kids Any Favors

When my son was in 5th grade, he attended a small two-room school in eastern Montana ranch country. In the spring, after the mud dried up, the schools within a 10-mile radius had a "play day," in which the kids competed in track events and a spelling bee (so that it could still count as a school day.) There were so few kids in these schools, two grades had to compete against each other.  So, in his school, the 5th and 6th grades competed against the Albion school's 5th and 6th graders.  

This year my son had mastered the Fosbury Flop and was ready to take on his nemesis, a 6th grader named Tom, in the high jump.  The night before, my son was so nervous he was throwing up.  Ever the mommy, I hugged him tight and told him, "Honey, don't worry about tomorrow.  Your Dad and I will love you just as much no matter what happens."  He looked me straight in the eye with a fierce look I didn't know a 10-year-old could have, and said, "I'm not doing this for YOU!"

At that moment, one that has stayed in my memory for 40 years, I realized that he had a life separate from mine and that winning the high jump competition was something that was important to him.  He needed to beat Tom.  As it turned out, neither boy beat the other.  They jumped and jumped for what seemed like days but they both went out on the same height. Steve and Tom were both happy because they had fought and achieved their goal.  Nothing was given to them just for showing up.

The following article reminded me of that day.     

September 24, 2013

Losing Is Good for You

LOS ANGELES — AS children return to school this fall and sign up for a new year’s worth of extracurricular activities, parents should keep one question in mind. Whether your kid loves Little League or gymnastics, ask the program organizers this: “Which kids get awards?” If the answer is, “Everybody gets a trophy,” find another program.
Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that kids respond positively to praise; they enjoy hearing that they’re talented, smart and so on. But after such praise of their innate abilities, they collapse at the first experience of difficulty. Demoralized by their failure, they say they’d rather cheat than risk failing again.
By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.
It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.
If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?
Having studied recent increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students, Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me,”warns that when living rooms are filled with participation trophies, it’s part of a larger cultural message: to succeed, you just have to show up. In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well. In the office, they still believe that attendance is all it takes to get a promotion.
When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children’s lives.
This school year, let’s fight for a kid’s right to lose.
Ashley Merryman is the author, with Po Bronson, of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” and “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.”

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