The big problem with rewarding kids for good grades and punishing them for bad ones

The Washington Post

By Jessica Lahey

When I’m in schools talking to kids about resilience and learning through failure, I usually begin with a quick survey. First, I ask teachers and staff in the auditorium to close their eyes. I then ask the students to raise their hands if they get paid cash money for good grades. Depending on the socio-economic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 percent of hands go up.

Sometimes it takes a while, hands creeping up slowly, hesitantly, for kids seem to intuit that getting paid for grades may not be the best approach to learning. I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any material thing in exchange for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny enticement. In response, about 20 to 25 percent of the hands go up. The noise in the auditorium tends to amp up with each new question as students begin to compare notes. When the clamor dies down, I remind the staff of the rules: eyes closed, no peeking. And I warn the students that this last question is a little harder to answer, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an honest answer before they respond.

“Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”

Over the past five years, I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 percent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is a little higher — about 90 percent.

After the poll is over, we debrief, and I reassure them that for the most part, their perceptions are incorrect, that they are loved no matter what, but parenting is hard, and we parents often need a moment to come up with the right response to an unexpectedly low grade. Sure, we are disappointed, but that silence they encounter when they bring home a report card littered with B-minuses (B-minus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less. I promise, we’re just pausing to find the best, most appropriate words to support their hearts, their minds and their intellectual growth.

I’m a parent, however, and I understand the truth behind that pause, even if I don’t want to admit it. That silence in response to a low grade? That’s withdrawal of love based on performance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.

Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, calls it “outcome love,” a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.

Outcome love impedes children’s happiness as well as their success in life because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions. Taylor elaborated in an email, “If parents send frequent messages of love, happiness, and excitement when their children are successful and frequent messages of withdrawal of love or anger, frustration, and disappointment when their children fail to live up to their parents’ expectations, the kids will make that connection.”

Messages of outcome love don’t just shape kids’ short-term happiness, either. They can have a long-term deleterious effect on mental health, one that endures well beyond adolescence.

“Sadly, these messages fuel mental health problems including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, not to mention the reactions of resentment, anger, and rejection from the children toward the parents. Even more painfully, this attitude of outcome love becomes internalized and children grow up to be adults who berate themselves for failure and only give self-love when they succeed,” Taylor said in the email.

Furthermore, when love is offered in exchange for performance, it becomes a reward to be earned, and the data on extrinsic rewards and their effect on motivation are clear: If we want kids to be invested in any activity — school, athletics, household duties, learning a musical instrument — the fastest way to undermine that motivation is to offer material or emotional rewards.

Of course we are proud of our children’s successes and disappointed in their failures — we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feedback on our parenting, so lacking our own report cards or trophies, it’s tempting to use our children’s success as immediate and reassuring evidence of our parenting success. However, claiming our children’s successes or failures as our own cheats them out of their experiences, devalues their learning, and teaches them that our love for them is conditional.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to avoid outcome love. When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of points, grades and scores, we communicate in terms louder than words that we love our children unequivocally and without reservation.

Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for example, focus discussion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they prepare for the assessment or project? What might they do differently next time? What was successful, and what do they need to change? Did they get enough sleep the night before the test or did they stay up for “just one more hour” to review? Did they speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not?

This focus on process over product is particularly helpful for highly anxious or perfectionist kids who tend to get derailed by their intense focus on outcomes. When these kids obsess over an end product, on why their grade was a 90 instead of a 100, for example, it’s essential to steer the discussion back to the learning, back to the ongoing, lifelong process of becoming a more effective, efficient and invested learner.

We can’t always excise all traces of judgment, joy or anger from our responses to our children’s triumphs and tragedies, nor should we. However, if we want our children to truly believe us when we say our love is constant and unconditional, that we value learning more than a number printed in red at the top of a test, we are going to have to put our money (and our unconditional love) where our mouths are.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a forthcoming book on preventing addiction in children.

Understanding Teenage Friendships In Middle Schoolers

Your Teen Mag

The author of the new book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed offers her take on middle school friendships.

MIDDLE SCHOOL CHALLENGES: CHANGING FRIENDSHIPS

 By Jessica Lahey

Middle school is challenging for so many reasons. Academics become more difficult. Schedules fill up with activities. And, in what might be the most treacherous terrain for kids and parents alike, teenage friendships change.

The peers your tweens cling to as they enter the middle school may look a lot different from the ones they race out with on the other side. And that’s to be expected. Friendships change over time, not just because our children evolve, but because the very nature of friendship evolves with them.

Early in childhood, our children’s friendships arise out of proximity and habit. We toss our kids into the sandbox with our friends’ kids. And this arrangement works for everyone. As kids get older, however, they begin to build emotional connections with friends based on compatibility. Their shared interests, dreams, and goals begin to edge out mere convenience.

When they become tweens, middle school friendships become much more complex. And for good reason. Tweens use friendships as a way to try on an identity. Old friends offer sameness and comfort. But the pull of novel ideas of other kids begins to lure them in new directions. Tweens begin to build teenage friendships based on these new priorities. Some priorities, such as social status or fashion choices, may not make much sense to parents. But they are just as important to our children’s growth as shared history or values.

YOUR TWEEN’S FRIENDSHIPS INEVITABLY CHANGE.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts. Tweens feel dumped, shunned, abandoned, and betrayed. And friends move back and forth between comfortable old relationships and exciting new alliances. As any parent knows, our own personal heartache hurts. But the secondhand heartbreak we experience through our children is much more painful, mainly because it’s out of our control. The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.

Our children’s teenage friendships are not about us any more than their choice of what to wear to the middle school dance is about us. The tween years are for trying on fifteen different outfits—the blue shirt with the tan pants, the red skirt with the white top—to see what works best for a changing body, mind, and spirit on a given day.

Tweens move from relationship to relationship, adopting this detail of a friend’s personality, discarding that characteristic of another, until they have collected the essential elements of their identity. Some relationships will survive this process, and some will not, but every one is an important phase of the journey. We may not love every outfit our tweens try on, but it’s our job to be there when they emerge from the dressing room, when they do a little twirl and wait for us to tell them how grown up they have become.

Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at jessicalahey.com.

Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School

The Atlantic

The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

The author’s sons enjoying summertime in their younger years. Jessica Lahey
Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as “less structured” or “structured,” the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as “less-structured,” while all adult-led activities were “structured.”

All of this is in keeping with the findings of Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who studies the benefits of play in human development. In his book Free to LearnWhy Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, he elaborates on how play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

When we reduce the amount of free playtime in American preschools and kindergartens, our children stand to lose more than an opportunity to play house and cops and robbers. Some elementary programs recognize the importance of play and protect its role in preschool and kindergarten. Montessori schools and Tools of the Mind curricula are designed to capitalize on the benefits of self-directed free play and student-initiated activities. Tools of the Mind programs, for example, place even more importance on developing executive function than on academic skills. In their terminology, “self-regulation” is the key to success both in school and in life:

Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement.

This is not news to most teachers, who, when tasked with educating increasingly crowded classrooms, hope and pray for students with well-developed executive function. The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student, who is distracted by his classmates and must be guided from one task to the next.

Parents, if you really want to give your kid a head start on coming school year, relinquish some of that time you have earmarked for lessons or sports camp and let your children play. That’s it. Just play. Grant them time free from your ulterior motives and carefully planned educational outcomes. Let them have dominion over their imaginary kingdoms while their evil dragons, white wizards, marauding armies, and grand battles for supremacy unfurl according to their whims and wills.

The Value of a Mess

Slate

You should let your kids totally botch household chores from an early age.

Little girl mixing dough for a birthday cake.
Mom and Dad’s little helper.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock.

Excerpted from The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey. Out now from HarperCollins Publishers.

A friend told me recently after she’d had a car accident that left her unscathed but chastened that in the midst of the crash, she’d realized she needed to make lists of all the small details her family would need to know if she was not there to take care of them. Her son needed to know that his soccer clothes had to go into the laundry  Sunday so he’d have what he needed for Monday’s practice. Her daughter needed to know which fabrics can go in the dryer and which cannot and what happens when wool sweaters sneak into the dryer by mistake. The kids should know how to fix the toilet when it clogs, and reset the water pressure tank after a power outage, and change a fuse, and winterize the lawn mower, and the million other things she’d taken care of herself rather than burden her kids with.

I pointed out that if she were to die in a car accident, the location of the reset lever on the water tank would be the least of her family’s worries, but I understood her point. She’d gotten a glimpse of just how paralyzed and incompetent her kids would be in her absence. When we don’t allow our children to participate in the business of running a household, they are quite helpless without us. Worse, we don’t expect competence from them, and when they do give household duties a shot, we swoop in, and we fix.

We swoop in after our kids make their beds and smooth out the lumps and bumps. We swoop in after they fold the laundry and straighten the misfolded towels. I’ve actually taken the sponge out of my son’s hands because he was making more of a mess of the milk he was supposed to be cleaning up. I understand the impulse to want things done better, or faster, or straighter. But what’s more important—that the dishes are immaculate, or that your child develops a sense of purpose and pride because he’s finally contributing in a real and valuable way to the family? That the bed is made without wrinkles, or that your child learns to make household tasks a part of his daily routine? All this swooping and fixing make for emotionally, intellectually, and socially handicapped children, unsure of their direction or purpose without an adult on hand to guide them.

Just because your child has never done the laundry, or loaded the dishwasher, does not mean she is not capable of doing just that. And kids want to feel capable. They are creative and resourceful, and even tasks that seem unmanageable due to limits of heights or dexterity can be accomplished with the aid of a step stool and simple directions. Those dishes that belong in the high cabinets above the counter? It took a half hour, but when my younger son was first assigned dishwasher duty at 6 or 7, he dragged a chair from the living room to reach the shelves. One by one, he put those plates away where they belonged. When I had asked him to “unload the dishwasher,” I’d forgotten about the high shelves but he’d figured a way around that obstacle himself. The look of pride he gave me when I said, “Wait—you did all of it? Even those plates?” was utterly gratifying. Failure has been a part of that process, of course. Since that first day, he has broken dishes in the process of learning how best to carry, stack, and load them, but who cares? I’d trade 10 broken plates for his smiles of competence and pride.

150911_FAM_Failure_cover

Explain to your children from an early age that you expect them to contribute to the running of the household. If they are older and have never been asked to contribute before, be honest. Cop to the fact that you failed yourself and have been underestimating their abilities all along. Set clear expectations, and hold your kids accountable when they don’t meet those expectations. If your daughter’s job is to clean up her place after meals and rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, and she forgets, leave the dishes out. Explain to her that the once–easily-rinsable food dries over time, and it will be much harder to clean it off when she finally gets around to it, but the dishes will remain on the table, waiting for her to clean them up. Even if that dish sits on the table for two days, don’t nag or hover, and absolutely no swooping or fixing, but be present and help problem-solve. Be there to help if your son is not sure about a cycle setting on the washer or if something goes horribly awry with the fabric softener, but find something absorbing to do while he goes about the work. If you go behind your child’s back and redo the chore he has just finished to his satisfaction, even if it’s after he’s left the room, he’ll notice. You will be telling him through your actions not only that he is incompetent but that you will finish the job if he’s careless.

And no bribes or rewards of cash payment—those kinds of short-term incentives can be used to kick-start motivation but don’t work as a long-term strategy. When I praised my son for putting those plates away in the high cupboards, I was not praising him for taking on the task, because he knew I expected that of him. Rather, I was praising him for the extra effort, determination, and perseverance he showed when he hit a roadblock.

Even toddlers, with their diminutive hands and limited attention spans, can begin to explore their abilities and competence in shared household responsibilities. When dealing with younger children, be sure to make your expectations clear and age-appropriate. Communicate family participation as a privilege, or even a game, and toddlers can accomplish more than you might expect. Here are some examples of the kinds of tasks toddlers are capable of learning:

  • Put their dirty clothes in a basket or hamper.
  • Dress themselves with clothing that’s not too complicated.
  • Fold simple items of clothing or linens such as pillowcases or washcloths.
  • Put their clothes away in drawers.
  • Follow two- or three-step directions in order to complete tasks. (“Get your toothbrush, put toothpaste on it, brush your teeth.”)
  • Throw trash and recycling away in the proper place.
  • Put toys away in tubs and baskets when they are done playing with them.
  • Get out and put away their dishes as long as you arrange their cups and bowls on a low shelf.
  • Feed the dog or cat.

As children graduate from toddlerhood and move toward preschool, start teaching them how to manage more complicated duties. Kids between 3 and 5 are big fans of counting and sorting, so give them jobs around the house that encourage them to practice these skills while instilling responsibility. Ask them to put five books on that shelf, or ask them to count out five oranges and place them in a bag at the store. Kids this age are perfectly able to:

  • Make their bed.
  • Straighten their room.
  • Sort and categorize items, such as utensils in a drawer or socks in the laundry.
  • Water plants.
  • Clear their place at the table.
  • Learn to not freak out and cry about spills, but get a towel or sponge and clean them up by themselves.
  • Prepare their own snacks.

Children as young as 5 can understand and accept the consequences of their actions (and inaction) but only if they experience those consequences. Forgot to put her favorite DVD away in its case after she watched it? The next time she wants to watch that movie, don’t help her look for it in the pile of loose DVDs, and remind her why she can’t find it.

Between the ages of 6 and 11, children should grow more and more capable. They understand the concept of cause and effect and can predict that if the clothes don’t go into the laundry basket, they won’t get clean. If the dog does not get fed, she will be hungry. Capitalize on this understanding and help children see how being proactive around the house can lead to positive effects. At this point, kids are able to be responsible for all sorts of household tasks, such as:

  • Peeling and chopping vegetables. (Teach knife safety early, and always use a sharp knife, which is safer than a dull one.)
  • Laundry—all of it, from sorting to putting it away. Post a list on the washing machine and dryer after you’ve conducted the requisite one-on-one lessons in order to provide reminders for all the steps. One mom pointed out that dry-erase markers write and erase well on the side of washers and dryers, so she simply writes instructions on the appliance itself.
  • Replacing the toilet paper when it’s gone. Leave the direction the roll spins to your child’s discretion!
  • Setting and clearing the table.
  • Outdoor work such as raking leaves, weeding, and hauling wood.
  • Vacuuming and mopping floors.
  • Helping to plan and prepare grocery lists and meals.

As your child discovers her significance and purpose, she’s going to make a mess of things from time to time as she learns. Her contribution to the household is not simply an item on a checklist you post on the refrigerator but a process, an education. You know how to fold laundry just the way you like it folded; your daughter does not. Let her muck it up the first couple of times; let her brother get frustrated with her because his pants are inside out and damp because the dryer twisted the leg in a knot. Let her discover for herself that when she leaves the clothes in the dryer overnight, her favorite shirt becomes hopelessly wrinkled.

And it’s important that school-age kids plan and prepare their own lunches. They need to be disappointed in their own choices once in a while. They need to find out that when they pack yogurt under the ice pack rather than on top, it gets squished, and the entire lunch bag becomes a sticky, vanilla mess. They need to know what it feels like to clean that sticky lunch bag and avoid the same mistake next time. They need to discover all the small details, workarounds, and solutions we devise in order to avoid the million small disasters that plague ordinary, everyday obligations.

From 12 on up, I can’t think of many household duties beyond their abilities. The more competent teens I’ve talked to are responsible for:

  • Household repairs, such as painting, replacing light bulbs, and simple car maintenance.
  • Grocery shopping. (Given some teens’ quirky dietary habits, some parents provide pretty specific lists.)
  • Planning and preparing more complicated meals.
  • Caring for and teaching younger siblings about their roles in the household responsibilities.
  • Taking the dog to the vet for his shots.
  • Cleaning out the refrigerator.
  • Chopping kindling and firewood.
  • Clearing leaves out of the gutters.

It’s never too early—or too late—to teach children how to contribute and problem-solve under their own power. Despite all the protests to the contrary, kids want to play useful roles in their family’s success. As parents have slowly but systematically deprived them of those roles, we owe them the patience and time it takes to give that purpose and responsibility back. The contribution of your children to the daily work of keeping a house and running a family will not only be a boon to the family now, but your kids’ increased competence and sense of responsibility will set them apart from their more coddled peers when they head off to college or land their first jobs. They have had opportunities to fail, to mess up and fix their errors, and won’t be fazed by a misstep here and there as young adults.

Excerpted from The Gift of Failureby Jessica Lahey. Copyright © 2015 by Jessica Lahey. A Harper book, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

BFFs Forever? Understanding Middle School Friendships

two girl friends fighting

The author of the new book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed offers her take on tween friendships.

 By Jessica Lahey

Middle school is challenging for so many reasons—academics become more difficult, schedules fill up with activities, and, in what might be the most treacherous terrain for kids and parents alike, friendships change.

The peers your tween son or daughter cling to as they enter the middle school building for the first time may look a lot different from the ones they race out with on the other side, and that’s to be expected. Friendships change over time, not just because our children evolve, but because the very nature of friendship evolves with them.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts.

Early in childhood, our children’s friendships arise out of proximity and habit. We toss our kids into the sandbox with our friends’ kids, and this arrangement works for everyone. As kids get older, however, they begin to build emotional connections with friends based on compatibility. Their shared interests, dreams, and goals begin to edge out mere convenience. When they become tweens, friendships become much more complex, and for good reason. Tweens use friendships as a way to try on an identity. Old friends offer sameness and comfort, but the pull of novel ideas of other kids begins to lure them in new directions. Tweens begin to build friendships based on these new priorities. While some priorities, such as social status or fashion choices, may not make much sense to parents, they are just as important to our children’s growth as shared history or values.

All too often, the shifting sands of tween friendship result in broken hearts. Tweens feel dumped, shunned, abandoned, and betrayed as friends move back and forth between comfortable old relationships and exciting new alliances. As any parent knows, our own personal heartache hurts, but the secondhand heartbreak we experience through our children is much more painful, mainly because it’s out of our control. The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.

“The urge to intervene, to save and heal, is powerful, and while meddling around in tween social machinations may make us feel better, we must stay out of it.”

Our children’s middle school friendships are not about us any more than their choice of what to wear to the middle school dance is about us. The tween years are for trying on fifteen different outfits—the blue shirt with the tan pants, the red skirt with the white top—to see what works best for a changing body, mind, and spirit on a given day.

Tweens move from relationship to relationship, adopting this detail of a friend’s personality, discarding that characteristic of another, until they have collected the essential elements of their identity. Some relationships will survive this process, and some will not, but every one is an important phase of the journey. We may not love every outfit our tweens try on, but it’s our job to be there when they emerge from the dressing room, when they do a little twirl and wait for us to tell them how grown up they have become.


jess_laheyJessica Lahey is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Atlantic and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Find out more at jessicalahey.com.

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

Here’s something we’ve considered implementing at Sacred Heart – we’re not sure it supports Goal V, personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom, though.

Thoughts?

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.

Why Failure Hits Girls So Hard

Time

@racheljsimmons

girl-fell-mud
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Failing well is a skill

When I ask why, she answers without hesitation. “I’m so used to doing well on things. If one thing goes wrong, I just want it to go away and feel like it never happened.”

That’s why Mary rarely speaks about her setbacks, including the study-abroad trip when she suffered from brutal homesickness, but didn’t tell a soul. She is terrified to be seen as anything less than extraordinary.

Jessica Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, says young women like Mary are in trouble. They’ve been so protected from mistakes, usually by their parents, that they fear failure, avoid risk and value image over learning. By the time they go to college, they are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and stress.

Lahey says parents defail their kids’ lives in order to minimize kids’ pain and extend their need for mom and dad’s support. When kids are dependent on parents, mom and dad can enjoy kids’ wins as evidence of superior parenting.

A raft of studies back up Lahey’s point. But evidence suggests that girls may be especially vulnerable when it comes to failing, and being spared from it. Here’s why trying to protect girls from challenge hits them especially hard:

Girls respond to failure differently than boys. When girls make mistakes, they’re more likely to interpret the setback as a sign they lack ability — a factor much harder for girls to change. Boys, on the other hand, tend to attribute failure to more controllable circumstances.

The phenomenon has been traced in part to how teachers talk to students. In observational studies, teachers corrected girls for mistakes related to ability, while boys tended to get more behavioral interventions (“Pipe down!”, “Stop throwing that paper airplane,” and so on).

Other studies have found that girls are more likely to give up in the face of a stressful academic situation. In one study, fifth-grade students were given a task that was intentionally confusing. It was the girls who were derailed by the confusion and unable to learn the material. Notably, the highest-IQ girls struggled the most. The phenomenon continues in college, where Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found it was women dropping out of Intro to Economics when they failed to get A’s.

In the early 2000s, a new gender difference in how kids experience failure was identified. “Stereotype threat” — the burden girls face when dealing with the stereotype that they are “bad” at math and science — has been linked to their underperformance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Less known is how stereotype threat makes failure more bruising for girls. It works like this: when girls buy into the stereotype that they’re bad at math, they don’t see a missed problem or poor grade as a correctible issue. Instead, it confirms what everyone else knows — that they simply have less ability. These experiences, researchers say, “add stress and self-doubt to [girls’] educational experiences and diminish their sense of belonging to the academic arena.”

Rescuing girls from failure makes them lose motivation — even more than boys. We learn best when we’re intrinsically motivated — that is, when we try something new for the sheer enjoyment of the experience. Intrinsic motivation is one of learning’s most precious resources. It bolsters us to stick out the tough moments of a challenge and pursue what we love to do.

Autonomy is one of three core ingredients of intrinsic motivation. In other words, we’re most inclined to want to learn when we can do it freely and of our own accord. When we believe others are interfering with our autonomy by trying to control our performance — say, by offering rewards, threatening punishment or offering certain kinds of praise — our motivation plummets.

Professors Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, pioneers in the study of motivation, say girls are more vulnerable to having their autonomy and motivation threatened. Because girls are raised to please others, they tend to care more about feedback from teachers and parents — and so are more sensitive to feeling controlled.

Females, Deci and Ryan have written, “pay particular attention to evidence of having pleased the evaluator when praised.” That’s why multiple studies find that girls show more negative outcomes when they are praised in ways that pressure them to keep performing at a high level.

In one study, praising elementary-school students for fixed traits and abilities, like being “smart” or “nice,” undermined intrinsic motivation for girls, but not boys. Another study found that in success situations, boys were more comfortable with praise that focused on their abilities, while girls were more comfortable with effort praise (“You worked hard”).

So what does work for girls? One study found that using informational praise to describe a good performance (“You did very well on that test”), instead of making an interpretation of it (“You’re so smart”), increased girls’ intrinsic motivation. Praising effort (“You worked really hard on that”) over ability has consistently been proven to motivate all kids, and especially girls.

Failing well is a skill. Letting girls do it gives them critical practice coping with a negative experience. It also gives them the opportunity to develop a kind of confidence and resilience that can only be forged in times of challenge. Besides this, girls need educators and parents to challenge stereotype threat, reminding them that ability can always be improved with effort, and that who they are will not determine where they end up.

Lahey says that saving kids from failure sends the message that we think they’re “incompetent, incapable and unworthy of our trust.” That’s why giving kids the space to screw up, as Lahey advises, is so important — and will be particularly so for girls.

Never Do For Kids What They Can Do For Themselves…

THE BREAD OF LIFE

An interesting article by Jessica Lahey that supports one of my favorite parenting statements: “Never do for kids what they can do for themselves, and never do for kids what they can almost do for themselves.”
I lifted this picture from King Arthur’s website, because while I had my iPhone,
I hardly thought taking a shot of the mom buttering the toast was appropriate.

There I was, sitting at a table in King Arthur Flour’s lovely new cafe, waiting for a meeting with a Head of School who is visiting from out of town, and I caught something going on at the table next to me. A family – mom, dad, teenage daughter – were enjoying a lovely breakfast together. That’s nice, I thought.

My reverie was pierced by the rapid movement of the mom who yanked the plate away from her teenage daughter, asked for the daughter’s knife, and hastily unwrapped the neat little package of Cabot butter. I watched – I’d like to say in disbelief, but my reaction was more like disgust – as the mother buttered her thirteen or fourteen year-old’s toast.
I watched for a while. I watched out of the corner of my eye to make sure the daughter did not have a cast I was missing on her arm or some other obvious disability that would have interfered with her ability to butter her toast. Nope. Not from my perspective, at least, nothing obvious to report. [As some commenters have mentioned below – at least the ones who refrained from swearing at me – have correctly pointed out that I can’t assess neurotypicality from ten feet away. This is absolutely true. Her inability to butter her toast could have stemmed from any number of issues. However, I sat next to them for a full hour, and as far as I could tell from my seat, there were no waving neuro-atypical red flags. But thanks for the obscenities and one particularly vivid description regarding where to put my own head.]
The daughter watched her mother frantically buttering, buttering, with what appeared to be a little bit of impatience and maybe even irritation. Ah, yes. It was irritation. I know, because when she bit into the toast, she complained to her mother that it was “too crunchy” and to please get her another order of toast that’s “less crunchy.”
I wish I was making this up.
To her credit, the mother made her go get it, but when the daughter returned with her less crunchy toast, the mother got back down to work, buttering, buttering…
And I got back to work on my book.
My cursor blinked at the end of a sentence in the following paragraph, in a chapter on the research behind intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivation:

“The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles” writes Dweck. She calls these successful individuals “mastery-oriented,” and

There’s that “and,” just waiting. I honestly did not know where to go from there. Luckily, my colleague arrived and I was able to shut down Scrivenerbefore I finished with

“…and therefore, it’s vital that your child be allowed to butter their own toast, to experience that sense of mastery over their breakfast.”

NB: I edited one sentence above after receiving comments and added the stuff in brackets.

Parenting, Not for the Moment, but for the Long Haul

By JESSICA LAHEY

Photo

CreditJessica Lahey

Walking through the woods with a friend on a recent spring afternoon, I lamented the lack of progress my son has made on the organizational front. Like many tweens, his frontal lobe is barely half-baked, and his ability to master the demands of middle school lags behind his teachers’ expectations. Despite strategy sessions and elaborately-laid plans, his backpack and locker continue to function as, in his words, “a Tardis gone wrong” for all things essential and time-sensitive.

My friend listened, made some supportive, empathetic noises, and then reminded me of how far he has come over the span of years rather than days. Her lovely point flitted past, well over my head, as I trudged through the muck and mire of my self-pity.

Later on that day, when I was done feeling sorry for myself, I realized that, of course, she was right. He has made progress; maybe not as compared with yesterday, or the week before, but in the long view.

Parents tend to ignore the long view as we race along in our listicle-driven lives, fueled by the promise of “Five Steps to Tantrum-Free” and “Thirty Days to a Happy Kid.” Those timelines and linear progressions mean nothing to the toddler mid-tantrum or the tween mid-sulk. Tempting as the shortcuts may be, they are mere sideshow attractions and distractions from the real work of raising our children. Parenting is, after all, a long-haul job.

I have no problem keeping this perspective at work, when it applies to the education, care and feeding of other people’s children. As a teacher, I am practiced in the art of the long view, in measuring the cumulative skills and knowledge that constitute an education over days and months and years, even as they wander off course, fall behind, and have to sprint to catch up.

When I call a parent at home with bad news, or deliver a worrisome progress report, the long view is often the best hope I can offer. Fear can cause a parent’s perspective to shrink to an anxiety-dense singularity, but a glimpse of the long view can bring just about any parent back from that point of no return. I promise them: given time, space and distance from this moment, your child will be fine.

I don’t blame parents when this happens, because I know that even seasoned parenting and child development professionals lose perspective when chaos strikes at home.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, father and adolescence expert, offered me reassuring professional advice in one breath (“All parents go through rough patches with their kids, but sometimes the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and remind yourself that this too shall pass”) but admitted in the next that he has failed to maintain any sense of perspective when it comes to his own children (“Our son went through a period where he was inconsolable; I thought I’d lose my mind”).

Jennifer Senior, mother and author of “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” answered my emailed plea for perspective with: “One of the most problematic aspects of modern parenthood, I think, is that we believe — falsely — that we have more control than we do. But what if the answer is simply time? Patience? The child who worried you 10 seconds ago will dazzle you 20 minutes later. Imagine that logic applied to the whole arc of a life.”

Finally, I turned to Launa Schweizer, one of the wisest educators and parents I know. Because she has taught her middle school students since elementary school, and has raised two magnificent teenage daughters, she is my Jedi Master of the long view, the friend I turn to when I’m bedeviled by the details. I asked her to Jedi mind-trick me back to sanity, to re-acquaint me with the virtues of time and patience. She sent me the following paragraph:

The boy who loved subways who becomes a theater tech whiz. The quiet girl who started learning English in fifth grade and goes on to win the science award. This year’s graduating seniors, kids I met 10 years ago when they were 7 and 8 years old, now heading off to become artists and engineers.

And just when I was writing back with the news that I was nominating her for sainthood, she copped to the following in a subsequent email: “But just this morning, my husband and I had a full-on screaming fight with my daughter over a bra strap and combat boots. I completely lost sight of the long game: her growth, and how little this moment would matter. Luckily, our mistakes, like theirs, come out in the wash.”

Children don’t take a direct path to adulthood; they wander. They are less concerned with our elaborate timelines and checklists than the fairy houses and climbing trees they spot along the side of the road. This June, as we race from concert to tournament to parent-teacher conference, get reacquainted with your rear-view mirror and look behind you for a moment. I promise: that grumpy, disorganized tween in the back seat, texting about her horrid, nagging mother and a C in Algebra, is going to be just fine.

Helping a Perfectionist Child Worry Less and Do More

The New York Times

By JESSICA LAHEY date published JANUARY 29, 2015 10:42 AM date updated

January 29, 2015 

A question I’ve been getting a lot recently, both via email and in person, is this: How can I help my perfectionist child worry less, and understand that it’s normal to make mistakes?

“Perfectionism,” in its dictionary definition, is simply, “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable,” but the word carries a powerful double meaning in our achievement-obsessed culture. Parents shake their heads and sigh with frustration in conferences, describing their children as “perfectionists” with an unmistakable note of pride in their voice.

Aye, there’s the rub — we all know perfection is an unreasonable burden to place on our children, but we also reward them when they strive for that perfection. Whether it germinates in a child’s own mind, is sowed in the high expectations of parents, or grafted on from our larger societal expectations, perfectionism robs children of opportunities to become stronger, more adventurous thinkers.

I first met Victoria when she was in sixth grade. She showed up for school every day nearly incandescent with happiness. She loved school, adored her friends and was genuinely excited about learning. Over time, however, her fear and anxiety about not measuring up — to her own high standards, her parents’ hopes and her peers’ high praise — began to dull that enthusiasm. Her struggles with perfectionism culminated in a near-paralysis in my writing class, social anxiety, and an eating disorder that threatened her physical health and emotional stability in high school. I asked her to describe what it feels like to struggle with unreasonable and unrelenting high expectations:

My perfectionism feels like an assembly-line supervisor whose job it is to ensure that every part of me is flawless, without any sign of weakness. Writing my graduation speech in your class, for example, felt so big, so critical, that it became impossible. When I entered high school, my body felt like the most flawed part of me, so I felt the need to align it with the rest of my “perfect” image of myself. It’s weirdly satisfying to punish yourself with exercise or restricted food while at the same time becoming more “perfect”; it’s a twisted cycle. My perfectionism still gets in the way of forming friendships, too. I set out looking for the “perfect” friend and then act perfect around her so as to create what I think will be an ideal relationship.

I asked Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University and an author of “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough,” to give parents and teachers advice on how to help kids like Victoria manage their perfectionism, and develop a healthier perspective on their worries.

In a phone interview, Dr. Antony described two forms of perfectionism. The first type, the kind that manifests as extreme attention to details, lists, order and arbitrary rules, is associated with obsessive compulsive personality disorder. The second type, Dr. Antony said, “is the tendency to set really high standards that you can’t possibly meet, and then judge your worth based on whether or not you meet those standards. The need to get all A’s, or the need to always make a good impression on others, for example. This type of perfectionism is more likely to be associated with anxiety and depression.” If the perfectionism causes significant distress or impairment in day-to-day functioning, Dr. Antony suggested professional help. At more moderate levels, parents and teachers can do a lot to help:

Expose worries. While it can be tempting to avoid upsetting kids, it’s important to get them talking about their worries, and to help them develop an emotional vocabulary about those concerning situations or activities. Once they open up about what makes them anxious, parents and teachers should repeatedly expose them to those triggers. This “exposure therapy” works particularly well for children with social anxiety, Dr. Antony said.

Change perspective. Dr. Antony suggests that parents or teachers help kids change the way they understand their perfectionistic thinking. Help kids understand that the dire consequences they envision are one possible outcome of many. Alternately, practice looking at worrisome situations from other people’s perspectives. Ask “What would Dad think if his pencil broke while he was working?” or “How might your friend Eli react if he got some of his homework problems wrong?”

Examine the evidence. Once kids are able to view their dire predictions as guesses or from the perspective of other people, help them gather evidence about the real-life consequences of those anxiety-fueled predictions. One way to do this is through engaging in what Dr. Antony calls “behavioral experiments.” He explained, “some people are convinced that if their towels aren’t straight, or their books aren’t in alphabetical order, or they pronounce something the wrong way, that something terrible will happen. So we’ll have them go out and try that, see what happens, to challenge that perfectionistic thinking.”

View failure more broadly. Try to help kids see mistakes “as an opportunity to improve performance, or even to learn that a particular activity is not for you,” Dr. Antony said. “Sure, there are some cases when you make a mistake and there are negative consequences, but there are also a lot of cases in which scary, worrisome predictions may not come true.”