“Let them eat cake,” said Marie Antoinette. Should teachers, parents, and managers say of the learners in their charge, “Let them struggle”?
Allowing learners to struggle will actually help them learn better, according to research on “productive failure” conducted by Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore. Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.
In a recent study published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, Kapur and a co-author, Katerine Bielaczyc, applied the principle of productive failure to mathematical problem solving in three schools in Singapore. With one group of students, the teacher provided intensive “scaffolding”—instructional support—and feedback. With the teacher’s help, these pupils were able to find the answers to their set of problems.
Meanwhile, a second group was directed to solve the same problems by collaborating with one another, absent any prompts from their instructor. These students weren’t able to complete the problems correctly. But in the course of trying to do so, they generated a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like. And when the two groups were tested on what they’d learned, the second group “significantly outperformed” the first.
The struggles of the second group have what Kapur calls a “hidden efficacy”: they lead people to understand the deep structure of problems, not simply their correct solutions. When these students encounter a new problem of the same type on a test, they’re able to transfer the knowledge they’ve gathered more effectively than those who were the passive recipients of someone else’s expertise.
In the real world, problems rarely come neatly packaged, so being able to discern their deep structure is key. But, Kapur notes, none of us like to fail, no matter how often Silicon Valley entrepreneurs praise the salutary effects of an idea that flops or a start-up that crashes and burns. So, he says, we need to “design for productive failure” by intentionally managing the way learners fail.
Kapur has identified three conditions that promote a beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.
By allowing learners to experience the discomfort of struggle first, and the triumph of understanding second, we can ensure that they have their cake and eat it, too
Bill Feig/Associated PressA report for the N.F.L. detailed harassment of Jonathan Martin, third from left, by Richie Incognito, second from left.
N.F.L. lineman Jonathan Martin encountered a Miami Dolphins team culture that was sick at its core. But was his private-school upbringing partly responsible for his inability to cope with the locker-room bullying he encountered there?
“I figured out a major source of my anxiety,” he wrote to his mother during his ordeal, according to the 140-page report on his ordeal that an outside law firm released on Feb. 14. “I’m a push over, a people pleaser. I avoid confrontation whenever I can, I always want everyone to like me. I let people talk about me, say anything to my face, and I just take it, laugh it off, even when I know they are intentionally trying to disrespect me. I mostly blame the soft schools I went to …”
Then, in a message to his father a week later: “I suppose it’s white private school conditioning, turning the other cheek.”
These comments press all sorts of buttons for private school parents, who worry that by trying to buy their way up to what seems like a better education, they’re robbing their child of the hard knocks every kid ought to experience. By invoking race, Mr. Martin, who is African-American, seems to suggest that private-school culture stands for training or retraining students of color to be meek young adults who don’t speak up or fight back.
But what sort of softness was he talking about? And how exactly does “white private school conditioning” manifest itself?
Mr. Martin, who is 24 years old, and his parents declined to expand further on his words in the report. He attended the private John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles for fifth and sixth grade. Ray Michaud, the headmaster there, also declined to respond to Mr. Martin’s comments, citing a school policy on talking about alumni and things they do or say after they leave.
Harvard-Westlake, which has produced many Hollywood stars and a handful of other professional athletes, was Mr. Martin’s next stop. “Harvard-Westlake simply offers our strong support for Jonathan Martin and his family during this difficult time,” its president and chief executive, Rick Commons, wrote by email. When I asked him whether his response was the very sort of other-cheek-turning that Mr. Martin described, he said that it was an “interesting follow-up” but did not comment further.
Both schools were willing to disclose some numbers in an effort to address the demographic charge specifically. At Harvard-Westlake, 19 percent of the student body receives need-based financial aid and 43 percent of students are not white. That compares favorably with national numbers that the National Association of Independent Schools tracks: Students of color make up 28 percent of the population at all private schools nationwide; 23 percent of students at member schools received need-based aid. John Thomas Dye is less diverse than average, with students of color making up 23 percent of its student body. Just 8 percent of them receive financial aid.
“Our schools are not the sort of impervious bastions of WASP culture and privilege that they were at the inception of independent schools,” said Caroline Blackwell, the vice president for equity and justice for the National Association of Independent Schools. “And so for a lot of people, they continue to have this idea that doesn’t really match the reality.”
These institutions like to be called independent schools nowadays, in part because “private” raises the question of just who they’re excluding. Independence speaks to their strengths, as they stand apart from the educational culture of test-taking and rigidity and, at their best, build close-knit communities centered around character as much as academic achievement.
Perhaps Mr. Martin was using “soft” as an antonym for “real,” as in the real world that private-school students might not encounter enough. But what would it mean for private schools to feel more real? Ms. Blackwell wondered about this, too. She is African-American and a product of private schools herself. She’s also made her career in them, working in the past as a counselor, admissions officer and multicultural affairs director, including 17 years at theUniversity School in Nashville. She ran the local human relations commission there before going to work for the independent schools association.
Ms. Blackwell wondered, as many private school parents might have when they read Mr. Martin’s words in newspaper accounts of the league’s report, whether he was calling out the sort of deliberately constructed communities that many private schools specialize in creating — built on intense attention to children’s feelings and the imprinting of values that support a commitment to civility.
Schools like that are not much like the world that many parents live and work in, where people are disposable, loyalty no longer matters much and every person is scratching away for themselves. But those mothers and fathers don’t necessarily want their 9-year-olds going to school in it. “My experience of independent schools is one where a premium is placed on problem solving in civil ways — dealing with conflict in ways that prefer conversation and discussion as opposed to fighting and aggression,” Ms. Blackwell said. “We would teach students to be assertive without necessarily being aggressive.” If she’s right, that’s hardly turning the other cheek.
It’s not clear whether that sort of teaching went on at Harvard-Westlake or John Thomas Dye, since nobody there wanted to talk about it. But Ms. Blackwell doesn’t think it’s fair to ask the product of any school to serve as proof of its educators’ success or failure if the test is to withstand what Mr. Martin did. “Preparing kids for the vitriol and hostility of a locker room, that’s not our intention,” she said. “Nor is it the intention of public schools or other types of schools, regardless of where they are, to simulate the worst sort of cultural experience to see if the kids can endure.”
If you’re a product of a private school or a parent at one, what do Mr. Martin’s words mean to you?
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He’s currently on leave to write “The Opposite of Spoiled,” a book about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have. He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook page and welcomes comments here or privately, via his Web site.
NEW YORK — Among the piles of plush toys, dolls and cars on display at the 2014 International American Toy Fair this year, there was a new standout category: STEM toys.STEM — an acronym that refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is becoming increasingly popular as parents opt for educational toys that instill these basics at an early age.
Teachers are technically hired to teach content—math, science, English, history. But over the course of a normal school day, we teach so much more. I’veenforced dress codes because I want my students to value their brains over their body parts. I’ve made spelling count because ideas presented sloppily are less likely to be heard. I teach about temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude in order to strengthen my students’ hearts as well as their minds. And when I hear my female students adopting a high-pitched, cutesy baby voice or turning their statements into questions with “upspeak,” I take the time to teach them how to find their voices of authority.
For years, I ignored the habit of baby voice and upspeak because while it is irksome, I was grateful my students were speaking up in class at all. I appreciate how hard it can be for some kids to open their mouths in class and risk embarrassment, so I did not want to do anything to instill more self-doubt or dampen their enthusiasm for my class. (Besides, baby voice works on some people. One male college professor I spoke with admitted that when a femalestudent uses baby talk, “I fall for it like a ton of bricks.” He added: “It does make me softer and more merciful, more likely to expend extra energy to help, and so on.”)
I tried to look past the habit, hoping it, like most trends, would pass into history. But after a few years of listening to girls make smart and insightful points with tentative, childish voices, I felt compelled to intervene. I became even more concerned when I realized that the trend could be interpreted as something more sinister than mere vocal affectation. “Sexy baby voice,” or SBV, was showing up in television and films as an instrument of sexual manipulation, a way of exploiting our culture’s fetish for adult sexuality wrapped in adolescent packages. Grantland posited that SBV “portrays the speaker as a submissive 12-year-old trying to be a sex object.” Tina Fey mocked it in an episode of 30 Rock. Actress and director Lake Bell launched her own takedown of SBV while promoting her film In a World.
If women want to pass themselves off as pubescent in order to attract sexual attention, fine, that’s their adult business. But when the trend spills over to real12-year-olds, who may or may not understand what the world hears and imagines behind that baby voice, I feel obligated to help them move toward a more mature means of communication that does not sacrifice content to its delivery. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bell explained, “I think what I find most unfortunate about it is that it’s diminutive, it’s sort of diminishing. And it’s a dialect. It’s not even justified by, ‘Oh, she was born with that.’ It’s learned.”
Some, including Jessica Grose at Slate, felt that Lake Bell was unfairly “dissing women’s voices,” that “women who are smaller may have narrower vocal folds, which will lead to a higher pitch.” However, when I consider whether my students are expressing themselves with confidence, I’m not looking for pitch. Middle school girls often have very high-pitched voices that may or may not develop into a deeper chest voice with time. I’m looking for the more subtle lilt, tone, and retreat from authority delivered via that high-pitched voice. Most of all, I’m looking for what could be perceived as an intimation of sexual or societal submission.
With that in mind, I started approaching baby voice as yet another practice to be overcome, much like habitual disorganization or shouting in the halls. In my lastteaching job, I was lucky enough to teach my students for three years in a row, and I took great delight in watching them grow and mature as thinkers. They came to me as little children and left for high school as burgeoning adults. I wanted to send them off into adulthood knowing they have the right to take up space with their voices.
If, as Lake Bell asserts, baby voice is learned, it can be unlearned through practice, positive reinforcement, and more practice. However, before tackling the symptom, I wanted to get at the root of the problem. I turned to psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley. She explained that younger children tend to use this form of vocal regression to cope with anxiety, when they are feeling overwhelmed or battling intrusive, distressing emotions and thoughts. For older children, she said, “it can stem from low self-esteem or is used to seek attention from peers and/or adults.”
Hurley recommends that teachers and parents look at the underlying feelings behind upspeak and baby talk. “Saying something like, ‘From the way you’re talking, it sounds like you might be feeling overwhelmed or anxious right now’ shows the child that you understand where they are and you are there to support them without judgment or punishment.”
I’ve seen this strategy work in my own experience as a teacher. After class one day, I finally decided to speak to a sixth grade student who was a frequent babytalk and upspeak user. We sat down in my office during snack time, and, over our herbal tea and cookies, we talked about why she uses such a high-pitched voice at some times and not others. I’d heard her on stage, when she’d inhabited a character in her fifth-grade play, and her voice dropped down into an authoritative and confident place. She talked about the pressures she’d faced, living in the shadow of a superstar older sibling, her tense relationship with her mother, and her worries about living up to her parents’ expectations. That conversation turned into a three-year-long effort to identify when and why she shifts into baby voice. Once we’d done that, we worked together to get out of that doubting voice and down into a definitive, confident chest voice rooted in her core, a voice worthy of the weighty insights she shared in class.
I also worked to instill these lessons in all my students. I incorporated a lot more public speaking in all of my classes. I taught my students to stand on both feet, hips square, chests out, and shoulders back. I invited the drama teacher come to class and teach them how to take up space with their words. He taught them how to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, to project, and to be ready to speak before they open their mouths. All of my students benefitted from these lessons, but my babytalker more than anyone else. Her classmates and teachers started listening to her. By the end of her eighth grade year, she had emerged an academic and social leader. At graduation, she gave a speech describing her long battle with self-doubt, and the pride she experienced as she learned how to have confidence in her own ideas and her ability to express herself.
As I support my students and bear witness to their growth, I will keep Hurley’s advice close to my heart. I will listen to them without judgment or punishment, and make sure their outer voice—the one the world will hear and judge as they make their way out there—matches the depth and breadth of their inner voice.
Ian was sitting at his usual place during what his parents had decreed was his nightly homework time. But he had his chair turned away from his open books and calculator, and he was removing the fourth raw hot dog from the package. He gingerly placed it sideways on the family dog Walter’s muzzle and commanded him to “walk.” Ian got the idea after a liberal sampling of YouTube’s stupid pet trick videos.
Ian’s mother, Debbie, peeked in on her son and then turned around to stare at her husband. It was a look that said: “Your turn. Get him back to his homework. I’ve reached my limit today.”
“Ian, its almost 8, let’s get going!” Michael yelled.
Four minutes passed.
“Ian, if you don’t get started now, I will not help you with your math.”
Ian commenced homework but soon drifted to watching more dumb pet tricks on YouTube.
Michael and Debbie had realized early that Ian was extremely bright but that he couldn’t often work up to his capabilities. He was disorganized, easily distracted (the stupid pet tricks!), and discouraged by the slightest failure. So they did what many dedicated parents do these days: turn themselves into a rodeo tag team to keep him on track at his competitive Washington, D.C., private school. Every evening, they reviewed his homework assignments, made a list of priorities, kept track of upcoming tests, reviewed long-term projects, and made plans to get a tutor if the work was confusing. Then the next night, they did it again.
Lately, we have been schooled on the hell that is adolescence, and more specifically, the collateral damage this phase of life inflicts on parents. The recent New York magazine cover story includes several examples of families locked in the kinds of pointless battles I just described. The stories might leave parents who read them with a strong sense of recognition, and also hopelessness. But as a clinical psychologist specializing in family systems, my job is to help parents and kids get past the deadlock. The key, it turns out, is figuring out how to get kids like Ian to tune into their own motivation to get their work done, and to get the parents to tune out of their motivation to shield their kids from failure and disappointment.
“Ian” and his family are recent patients of mine at my private Washington, D.C., practice, and the teenager has the typical profile of many I see. They are often boys, smart but underachieving, possibly with some diagnosis—ADHD, a learning disability, or something on the autistic spectrum. Their parents work diligently to help them succeed: cajoling and pleading and threatening and occasionally employing more intrusive techniques copied from mob debt collectors. The worthy goal of these enormous efforts is to insure that these kids feel good about themselves, and failure to achieve that goal is often equated with failure as a parent. I consider it my job to teach every member of the family to succeed a little less and fail a lot more in the service of a greater goal, developing character. Teaching them to make space for failure is a monumental task and often requires begging on my part.
In my nearly 30 years as a psychologist and family therapist, I’ve learned that parents can only play one of two possible roles at any given time: cheerleader or Texas high-school football coach. The cheerleader’s main goal is to keep the spirits up. As soon as the child is born, he is offered fun activities that are sometimes mildly challenging, so long as they leave the glow of “something positive just happened” —stimulating crib toys, managed play dates, rec sports. The cheerleader has learned to “praise the effort, not the outcome” so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach’s main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure. The aim is to develop a “character repertoire” that includes willpower and the ability to delay gratification and to accept hardship as part of life.
It won’t surprise anyone to hear that we live in an era of cheerleaders. Manysociologists and parenting experts have diagnosed (and complained) about this prevalent style. In my experience the approach works well in the younger years; there is something charming about encouraging effort over just winning, about boosting self-esteem. But then in the middle-school years it often all comes crashing down. The kids are wholly unprepared for what they’ll face and the parents, stuck in cheerleading mode, wind up like Michael and Debbie, like the parents Jennifer Senior profiles in the New York magazine cover story: desperate to “bring back that loving feeling”—the positive glow and sense of parental gratification.
Over the past decade Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck have conducted six studies of 412 fifth graders, ages 10 through 12, comparing the goals and achievements of children praised for their intelligence with those of youngsters commended for making an effort. “Praising children’s intelligence, far from boosting their self-esteem, encourages them to embrace self-defeating behaviors such as worrying about failure and avoiding risks,” said Dweck, lead author of the study. Po Bronson warned about the risks of this parenting error in his 2007 story “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” Keep praising middle-school kids who are struggling and their grades might never recover, he writes, because they never learn strategies to deal with failure.
So what can parents do? Unfortunately, it’s really hard to motivate parents to shift from cheerleading to coaching mode this late in the game. It’s no fun, and it is not rewarding for parent nor child. It is also counterintuitive, particularly for parents who have spent more than a decade helping their child be as happy as possible and avoid pain. It requires parents to be witnesses to minor and possibly major train wrecks: getting F’s for missed homework, being sucked into the black hole of online games, discovering marijuana—things that make pet tricks look like harmless fun by comparison. The phase requires parents to tolerate anxiety, self-doubt, and failure, not just in their child but—even harder in some ways—in themselves as parents.
But it’s absolutely critical because parents and their kids construct a reality together that at this stage only the parents can undo. As parents, we can get caught in the day-to-day unfolding “story”—the simplest sequence of events in our lives. We find places for our child to have fun and succeed. He is happy. We are good parents. We are happy. End of story.
What I try to do is get parents to appreciate some grander “narrative” —a system of stories, related to each other, that extends the single “story,” say, a failure to prepare for a test, into a larger evolving narrative. Along with David Black, a clinician and research neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, I am developing a program called “Transitions X: Working With Families to Build Autonomy” that includes many such experiments in teaching middle- and high-school parents and their at-risk kids independence. What’s hard is getting the parent commandos to commit to an exit strategy of gradual, real troop withdrawal because it feels to them like neglect or even abuse. We want them to evolve from what has been referred to as “Helicopter Parents” to “U-2 Parents”: observers instead of combatants—present, attentive, but largely undetected from such a distance.
So let’s say Ian spends the night before an exam doing pet tricks instead of studying, but this time, his parents, Michael and Debbie, refrain from the usual exhortations. (This is a true story, names changed) Ian fails the test, and he is demoralized. The next week he does the same thing again and still they don’t intervene. This time he’s also angry. “This really sucks, and it is your fault!” he yells at his parents. He is called into the dean’s office and asked to account for his drop in grades. The dean tells him he has to improve his performance or he’ll get placed in a lower math level.
Ian is still angry at his parents for “not caring” about him, but he really doesn’t wantto get a math demotion. This is the first time it’s occurred to him that he might not get into a great college, which is what his parents have been signaling to him is his inevitable fate. It takes a lot of work to get his parents to stick with the program at this point. Michael and Debbie were really worried he would become overwhelmed or even break down. I convinced them that if they intervened now, they would only be delaying a train wreck until the first year of college. Sooner or later, he had to learn what to do when he failed.
Used to being bailed out by his parents, Ian was confused. Eventually he came up with the idea of asking his teacher for help. The teacher was willing to help but only if Ian made the appointments himself and showed up consistently. In these private meetings, Ian learned that his revered double honors math teacher had failed calculus the first time. The teacher was blunt in telling Ian that if he did not take responsibility for his own learning, he should give up on the idea of being a math or science major in college. Ian had been counting on this teacher for a strong recommendation. Once again, his sense of inevitable success was shaken, so he was scared into being responsible. Ian is still showing up for the appointments.
The hardest part of the parents’ task is often the quid pro quo, insisting on getting some things from their kid up front, in return for the privilege—not the inevitability but the earned privilege—of going to college. Parents have to accept that the narratives are open-ended. One never knows which “failure” will be the tipping point for an adolescent toward more effort, self-reflection, assuming responsibility, in a word, discovering inner motivation.
The reason we need to make this shift is obvious if we think about our own lives. We can very often trace significant, unexpected growth in our adult lives as emerging out of disappointments and setbacks. Perhaps as a direct result of a failure, we encounter someone who becomes a pivotal mentor, who sees a spark in us we miss. We are denied admittance to what seems like the ticket to our early dream, only to discover our calling, more subtle but more configured to our values and strengths. If you need convincing, here is a blog that chronicles the unlikely ways that musicians, artists, and other creative types got their start. All of these experiences are painful in the short term, but ultimately, hopefully, lead to a shot at happiness.
Do you crumble when you encounter difficulty and stress? Do you give way at the first sign of resistance from others? Or are you mentally tough?
To be mentally tough is to resist the urge to give up in the face of failure, to maintain focus and determination in pursuit of one’s goals, and to emerge from adversity even stronger than before. Psychologists claim that almost everyone can benefit from strengthening these skills, even those people we might consider paragons of mental toughness: army drill sergeants. The U.S. military is now implementing a resilience-building program, designed by a team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, intended to make soldiers as rugged in mind as they are in body. This effort—one of the largest psychological interventions ever attempted—holds lessons for anyone who wants to strengthen their mental muscles.
Drill sergeants were chosen to receive the training because they’re in a position to teach the service members under their command, promoting a trickle down of psychological resilience. The program’s key message: Mental toughness comes from thinking like an optimist. “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local and changeable,” notes Penn psychology professor Martin Seligman, describing the intervention in a recent journal article. When such individuals encounter adversity, they think to themselves: “It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.” Sergeants learn to analyze their beliefs and emotions about failure, and to avoid describing failure as permanent, pervasive and out of their control — all characterizations that undermine mental toughness.
Another pillar of psychological fortitude is the ability to resist “catastrophic thinking”—the tendency to assume the worst. Seligman’s program offers examples drawn from army life: a sergeant stationed abroad doesn’t hear from his wife back home and concludes that she’s left him; a sergeant receives a negative performance evaluation from his commending officer and immediately thinks, “I won’t be recommended for promotion, and I don’t have what it takes to stay in the army.” Participants learn to fight back against such negative thoughts, challenging their accuracy and searching for a more positive spin — while also making sure to reflect and act on genuine concerns and problems.
Lastly, the drill sergeants in Seligman’s program are taught two capacities that might seem at odds with mental toughness: gratitude and generosity. Participants learn how to “hunt for the good stuff” — to look for and appreciate the ways in which they are fortunate. And they learn not to judge too hastily subordinates who themselves seem to lack grit. The participants are offered this scenario: “A soldier in your unit struggles to keep up during physical training and is dragging the rest of the day. His uniform looks sloppy and he makes a couple of mistakes during artillery practice. You think to yourself, ‘He’s a soup sandwich! He doesn’t have the stuff of a soldier.’” The sergeants are warned against over-generalizing about others based on a few pieces of information, and encouraged to cultivate strength in junior soldiers instead of rejecting those who don’t make the grade right away.
Similar interventions with civilians have succeeded in reducing participants’ vulnerability to anxiety and depression. While evidence of the program’s effectiveness for soldiers heading into combat is still being gathered, it is hoped that enhancing resilience will help reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among service members and veterans, which has soared to record levels during the United States’ military engagement with Iraq and Afghanistan. The 10-day training session, which also focuses on building personal strengths and fostering positive relationships, can’t address every psychological issue that soldiers may face. But sergeants who graduate from the program return to drill practice with a new kind of ammunition: a keen understanding of how to toughen the mind for the daily battle against adversity.
I’m spending the morning waiting for my car in the repair shop. Four men in flannel (I missed the flannel memo) and I sit around smelling tires and inhaling exhaust fumes while an enchanting little fairy is in constant motion around her daddy. She climbs on him, giggles, turns around, and then she’s back to twirling on the tile.
She’s bouncing and spinning around in her pink frilly skirt. Her black cable knit tights are sagging around her tiny knees, and her puffy coat makes her arms stand out further than is natural. To top off the ensemble is a shiny crystal tiara. It’s been tacked down to her head with what appears to be about 60 haphazard bobby pins.
She’s probably 4 years old. So little, so vulnerable. She doesn’t seem concerned about it as she sings about teapots and ladybugs in her black Mary Janes. I feel myself tear up as I watch her. I tear up as I watch him watch her. She could not possibly know at 4 what impact this man, his character or his words will have on her for years to come. And, maybe he doesn’t know either.
So, to all the daddies with little girls who aren’t old enough yet to ask for what they need from you, here is what we wish you knew:
1. How you love me is how I will love myself.
2. Ask how I am feeling and listen to my answer, I need to know you value me before I can understand my true value.
3. I learn how I should be treated by how you treat my mom, whether you are married to her or not.
4. If you are angry with me, I feel it even if I don’t understand it, so talk to me.
5. Every time you show grace to me or someone else, I learn to trust God a little more.
6. I need to experience your nurturing physical strength, so I learn to trust the physicality of men.
7. Please don’t talk about sex like a teenage boy, or I think it’s something dirty.
8. When your tone is gentle, I understand what you are saying much better.
9. How you talk about female bodies when you’re “just joking” is what I believe about my own.
10. How you handle my heart, is how I will allow it to be handled by others.
11. If you encourage me to find what brings joy, I will always seek it.
12. If you teach me what safe feels like when I’m with you, I will know better how to guard myself from men who are not.
13. Teach me a love of art, science, and nature, and I will learn that intellect matters more than dress size.
14. Let me say exactly what I want even if it’s wrong or silly, because I need to know having a strong voice is acceptable to you.
15. When I get older, if you seem afraid of my changing body, I will believe something is wrong with it.
16. If you understand contentment for yourself, so will I.
17. When I ask you to let go, please remain available; I will always come back and need you if you do.
18. If you demonstrate tenderness, I learn to embrace my own vulnerability rather than fear it.
19. When you let me help fix the car and paint the house, I will believe I can do anything a boy can do.
20. When you protect my femininity, I learn everything about me is worthy of protecting.
21. How you treat our dog when you think I’m not watching tells me more about you than does just about anything else.
22. Don’t let money be everything, or I learn not to respect it or you.
23. Hug, hold, and kiss me in all the ways a daddy does that are right and good and pure. I need it so much to understand healthy touch.
24. Please don’t lie, because I believe what you say.
25. Don’t avoid hard conversations, because it makes me believe I’m not worth fighting for.
It’s pretty simple, really. Little girls just love their daddies. They each think their daddy hung the moon. Once in a while when you look at your little gal twirling in her frilly skirt, remember she’ll be grown one day. What do you want her to know about men, life, herself, love? What you do and say now matters for a lifetime. Daddies, never underestimate the impact of your words or deeds on your daughters, no matter their age.
This owner’s manual lets teens kick the tires as they learn to drive their new-model brains.
The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain offers fun-filled, easy-to-understand information about how the brain works, grows, and develops to help young people successfully navigate through the challenging years from ages ten to twenty.
Adolescence is a highly dynamic developmental period, and the brain is the body’s most dynamic, and mysterious, organ. Psychologists JoAnn and Terrence Deak use ordinary concepts and language along with scientific terms to explain the various parts of the brain and how they interact with each other, using an analogy that many adolescents understand: the way a car works and the care it needs to operate at its best.
Freya Harrison’s lively, colorful illustrations add a touch of whimsy that greatly enhances the text, and fun science facts keep the reader enjoyably engaged. For example, did you know that if the cell body of a single neuron in your spinal cord that is about one hundred microns in diameter (about the size of a pinhead) were the size of a baseball, its axon would be nearly 2,416 feet long? That’s “eight times as tall as the Statue of Liberty, twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as high as the tallest skyscraper on Earth.”
The Deaks also tackle some of the more troublesome aspects of adolescence, including the strong, and sometimes misguided, drive for independence and the emotional turbulence that characterize this time of life. Understanding that the brain’s different structures develop and mature at different rates, with the cerebral cortex (which participates in complex decision-making) not fully developed until adulthood, can help teens appreciate why they may need guidance from mature adults when it comes to making important decisions.
Learning that regular exercise supercharges the brain might lead even the most sedentary teen to frequent the gym or take up a sport. And understanding that, until the prefrontal cortex is fully mature, young people will have the tendency to act impulsively or engage in risky behaviors may help to protect them from making and acting upon some bad decisions; they may even find it easier to ask the advice of a trusted adult before their immature brain leads them astray. While geared to adolescents, parents and other adults who work with youth may find much to appreciate and enjoy in this manual on the care of their charges’ “grey matter.”
JoAnn Deak is an educator and preventive psychologist. Terrence Deak is a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where he runs an active neuroscience laboratory.
The authors make it clear that, no matter which types of life decisions adolescents must face, the choice always remains in their own hands. This respectful acknowledgment, together with the admission that making good decisions isn’t always easy, can help young people understand, and accept, both their limitations and their power.
Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student’s mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarized paper.
“You can’t do that. She didn’t do anything wrong,” the mother informed me, enraged.
“But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted off of web sites,” I stammered.
“No, I mean she didn’t do it. I did. I wrote her paper.”
I don’t remember what I said in response, but I’m fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard. And what would I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write “I will not write my daughter’s papers using articles plagiarized from the Internet” one hundred times on the board? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defense: her daughter had been stressed out, and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.
In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.
While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.
The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good — until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described “examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting.”
Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” In an attempt to understand such behaviors, the authors surveyed psychologists, guidance counselors, and teachers. The authors asked these professionals if they had witnessed examples of overparenting, and left space for descriptions of said examples. While the relatively small sample size and questionable method of subjective self-reporting cast a shadow on the study’s statistical significance, the examples cited in the report provide enough ammunition for a year of dinner parties.
Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a “Tsk, tsk” among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I’m not that worried. They will go out on their own someday and recover from their overprotective childhoods.
What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”
This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.” One study participant described the problem this way:
I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.
These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.
I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.
I’m done fantasizing about ways to make that mom from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed, and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, “This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child,” and I’ve long since accepted that most parents won’t believe me. That’s fine. I’m patient. The lessons I teach in middle school don’t typically pay off for years, and I don’t expect thank-you cards.
I have learned to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons, and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasize about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, find their way through the gauntlet of adolescence, and stand firm in the face of the challenges — challenges that have the power to transform today’s children into resourceful, competent, and confident adults.
The helicopter parent has crashed and burned. With millennials reaching adulthood it has become clear that this hovering style of parenting results in overly dependent young adults, plagued by depression or less satisfaction with their lives and anxiety, who cannot even face the workplace without the handholding their parents have led them to expect. The literature is now replete with indictments of over parenting and the havoc it creates. In her bookSlouching Toward Adulthood, Sally Koslow documented a generation so cosseted that they have lost the impetus to grow up or leave home. The over-involved parent has gone from paragon of caring to a figure of fun.
The pendulum has swung, and as is so often the case, it may have over reached its mark. Parenting pundits now argue for the benefits of natural consequences, for letting the world take it toll on kids as method of teaching them grit and life’s necessary coping skills. Failure has become the new success.
Time captured this zeitgeist with a cover story in which editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs explained:
Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. We’re often the ones who hold them down.
This thinking was a reaction to a generation of hovering parents who cleared the way and smoothed over life’s bumps, who metaphorically swaddled their children in bubble wrap. But the reaction to this unfortunate method of parenting has perhaps been an over-reaction.
The antidote to heavy-handed parenting is not hands-off parenting. There is not a stark choice between doing things for our children and thereby disabling them, and leaving them to tackle challenges on their own. The middle ground, hands-on parenting, involves neither spoiling a child by clearing their path for them, nor stepping away and watching them fail.
Even as the parenting tide was turning away from helicopter moms and dads, there was a problem with the newfound orthodoxy. Less engaged parenting isn’t always better, and in the realm of education, an involved parent leads to better outcomes. As Gibbs noted in her Time story,
Many educators have been searching for ways to tell parents when to back off. It’s a tricky line to walk, since studies link parents’ engagement in a child’s education to better grades, higher test scores, less substance abuse and better college outcomes.
In a recent New York Times post, educators were asked how parents should cope with an underperforming teen, one who has previously shown ability but has become unmotivated and indifferent. Jessica Lahey, the teacher/author (andregular Atlantic contributor) who wrote the piece, acknowledges that this is the most frequent and difficult question that parents pose to educators. In this case the student in question is in ninth grade and struggling through the difficult transition to the increased demands of high school.
Making students care about school enough to give their best effort is an intractable problem for both parents and teachers. Research shows that many diligent, good students find a sharp fall off in motivation in the middle-school years.
Part of this is a decline in their desire to please their parents and teachers, and part is an increase in the distractions in their lives. For some students the step up to high school from middle school is a tough adjustment requiring study and organizational skills the student does not yet possess. For others, dating, the freedom that comes with driving, and their expanded social life simply prove too difficult to balance with schoolwork. Teachers and parents can find themselves at a loss when trying to reengage otherwise capable students who are underperforming in the classroom.
The educators who weighed in on the New York Times piece were unanimous in their advice. Back off, they urged: Despite a decline in attitude and performance in a student, increased parental involvement is not what was called for. One teacher argued for keeping positive and focusing praise on what effort is evident rather than what is not being accomplished. A professor suggested that parents find out where their student’s interests lay and that they should otherwise not get involved. The sensible argument was made that teens need to find their own motivation and that parents should back off because there will be consequences at school for poor academic performance.
This measured, considered advice is very much in keeping with the times, a reaction to the over-involvement that was recommended a decade earlier. The experts argue convincingly that parents should not smooth over their child’s failures, that they should not make what is wrong right.
This all presumes, however, that the consequences of performing poorly in school will be adequate, timely, and effective in convincing a child to change his or her behavior. It presumes that parental involvement will decrease a teen’s sense of personal responsibility, rather than heightening it. And finally it presumes that schools are teaching all the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, alongside the substance of the curriculum.
If the fallout from doing poorly in school were not so long-lasting, then letting teens find their way would set them up for adulthood. But that is not the case. If in the face of underperformance, parents focus on our children’s successes, seek out their passions, reward them with life’s luxuries, and allow the school to deal with the consequences, we have let our children down.
There are few lives that are not enhanced by doing as well as possible in high school. For kids headed on an academic path, doing well creates more post-secondary school options. For teens headed into the workplace, a degree opens more doors.
Some kids find true passion in the classroom, but for many the prescribed course load is filled with subjects that are uninteresting at best. It does not matter. As parents it is our job to teach our children that liking something or not liking something is an unacceptable excuse for doing poorly. Adulthood is filled with responsibilities we would all prefer to shed, but performing at a substandard level is rarely the best option. A parent’s job is to show our kids how sometimes you work hard at something that does not call to you because that is the right thing to do.
Teens want phones and TV, friends to come over, and to be driven to dances. They want their favorite foods from the grocery store. They want new cleats or skates. They want to go to the movies with friends. The single worst thing that we could teach them is that they can have any of these things if they do not make good on their half of the bargain. So while it may be tempting to attribute a poor performance in school to the vagaries of adolescence we do our children no favors to teach them that they will get something for nothing.
While the notion of natural consequences is an enticing one, it can be an unrealistic expectation. How many schools are going to intervene when kids are giving 50 percent effort and getting by with passing grades? What are those consequences? An astute teacher might express disappointment, and offer the encouragement that she is really expecting more. An advisor might make it clear that honors classes will become out of reach, or that remedial classes are in the offing. But these are hardly consequences to a student who has discovered that Facebook is more interesting than physics.
Waiting for natural consequences may mean waiting until the situation is grim and even then, a shortsighted teen may fail to respond appropriately. Some will come around, others will delude themselves into thinking they have the situation under control right up until the moment that they find out that they don’t. Teens live in the here and now and often underestimate the time and effort an unpleasant task requires.
Students thrive when they feel they can master the task they are given, when they see the purpose of that task, when they are engaged in the work and when they get positive feedback from peers, teachers, or parents for their efforts.
Creating these conditions, and cultivating the motivation that will follow, may well require parental intervention. When teens begin to struggle in school, that is the moment for parents to become more attuned to their child’s academic life, it is the point at which they should step up, not step back.
Parents might need to help students with their review by quizzing them, helping them to find online educational resources or by encouraging them to seek out the teacher or a tutor. Parents may need to remove distractions, provide incentives or reinforce family expectations. Much of the social cred that came from doing well in school has faded by high school. But one thing that does not change is some need for approval from parents. Teens may play tough but are not entirely indifferent to the values in their homes and the friction that is incurred from ignoring those values.
While it is easy for adults to see the direct link between academic success and increased opportunity, those dots need to be connected again and again for teens who are naive about the world of work and higher education. Nancy Hill of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found in a study of over 50,000 students that relating academic achievement to life’s later goals is one of the most effective thing parents can do to help their teens.
Although the study showed that parents’ involvement in school events still had a positive effect on adolescents’ achievement, it did not rank as highly as parents conveying the importance of academic performance, relating educational goals to occupational aspirations, and discussing learning strategies.
Poor performance in high school has its consequences in life and, while a teen may know this intellectually, they may choose to ignore it. Many high-school kids struggle because of their lack of organizational skills. While they may be capable of mastering the material, they underestimate the amount of time required, the careful notes that need to be taken or importance of test preparation or homework assignments. These are skills that can be taught, and reinforced by a parent. They are essential skills that will be needed in any academic or employment situation.
But this involves closer monitoring by parents, rather than stepping away. It involves parents saying, “How much homework do you have?” Here there will be a long pause. “How much time will that take? When are things due? What is your schedule for getting that done given your other time commitments?” Parents can model the executive function thinking that teens can lack, showing them the thinking process that leads to accomplishing tasks in a timely manner.
Many educators suggest that these types of questions are nagging, and taking responsibility for something that should be on the shoulders of the child. As a parent, I have taken a different approach, believing that teens struggle in school because of the challenges posed organization, time management, and deferred gratification and that it is our job to help teach them these large life skills before sending them out into the world.
At one point, with a son who was underperforming in high school, I mounted a large white board over his desk. Every day after school he had to write down every task that he faced and then erase each one upon completion. This served the dual purpose of keeping me informed (without daily nagging) of how much work he faced and where he was in terms of completing it and he had to stare at this oversized to-do list on the wall above his computer. No progress on the list? No car keys, no Netflix, no computer time, and eventually no cell phone. In my very small, very unscientific study I have determined that a teen will do almost anything for a cell phone.
The argument against this internationalist approach is that it cannot be sustained, that working hard at something that is painful or boring because your parents are making you, is not a lifelong strategy for success. It could be argued that parents setting up extrinsic motivation will let a kid down once his life begins to separate further from that of his parents. Here is the good news. High school only last four years, and it is nothing like the rest of life. As soon as kids arrive at college, they are given some choice about classes, teachers, their schedule and the direction of their lives. If they pass into the working world, there is some choice there as well. By demanding that they do their best for four years in the face of the protests we will hopefully have taught them the value of delayed gratification, self-control, and fulfilling their responsibility. And in doing that, as parents, we will have done our job.