Giving Good Praise To Girls: What Messages Stick

MindShift

  April 24, 2013

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How to praise kids: It’s a hot topic for many parents and educators. A lot of the conversation around it has stemmed from studies by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford who has been researching this specific topic for many years.

“My research shows that praise for intelligence or ability backfires,” said Dweck, who co-authored a seminal research paper on the effects of praise on motivation and performance. “What we’ve shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.”

But what some might not know is that this paradox is strongest for girls.

Dweck’s research, which focuses on what makes people seek challenging tasks, persist through difficulty and do well over time, has shown that many girls believe their abilities are fixed, that individuals are born with gifts and can’t change. Her research finds that when girls think this way, they often give up, rather than persisting through difficulties. They don’t think they possess the ability to improve, and nowhere is the phenomenon stronger than in math.

“Of all the subjects on earth, people think math is the most fixed,” Dweck said. “It’s a gift, you either have it or you don’t. And that it’s most indicative of your intelligence.” This attitude presents an especially sticky problem to educators working to boost girls’ interest and passion for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM subjects. For many boys, believing math is a fixed ability doesn’t hamper achievement — they just assume they have it, Dweck said. But girls don’t seem to possess that same confidence, and in their efforts to achieve perfection, Dweck’s research shows they shy away from subjects where they might fail.

[RELATED READING: Girls and Math: Busting the Stereotype]

“We have research showing that women who believe math is an acquired set of skills, not a gift you have or don’t have, fare very well,” Dweck said. “Even when they have a period of difficulty and even when they’re in an environment that they say is full of negative stereotyping.” This research suggests parents and educators should rethink what implicit and explicit messages are being sent to young girls about achievement.

If adults emphasize that all skills are learned through a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer, girls will show resilience. It also might help to provide a roadmap to correct the gender imbalance that already exists in fields requiring math and science, jobs that often involve setbacks, “failing,” and overcoming challenges.

Dweck has found that socialization and beliefs about learning ability are developed at early ages. “Mother’s praise to their babies, one to three years of age, predicts that child’s mindset and desire for challenge five years later,” Dweck said. “It doesn’t mean it is set in stone, but it means that kind of value system — what you’re praising, what you say is important — it’s sinking in. And the kids who are getting this process praise, strategy and taking on hard things and sticking to them, those are the kids who want the challenge.”

Dweck understands it isn’t easy to praise process and emphasize the fun in challenging situations. Kids like direct praise, but to Dweck lauding achievement is like feeding them junk food – it’s bad for them.

[RELATED READING: How Important is Grit in Student Achievement?]

An implicit argument here is that failure in small doses is good. Dweck’s not the first person to make that argument; advocates of game-based learning say one of its strongest attributes lies in a player’s ability to fail and start over without being stigmatized. Students learn as they go, getting better each time they attempt a task in the game. But the current education system leaves little room for failure, and consequently anxious parents often don’t tolerate small setbacks either.

“If you have little failures along the way and have them understand that’s part of learning, and that you can actually derive useful information about what to do next, that’s really useful,” Dweck said.

She believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all.

Bigger Gains for Students Who Don’t Get Help Solving Problems

MindShift

 | February 25, 2014

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CCarlstead

“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

Helicopter parenting has crippled American teenagers. Here’s how to fix it.

Slate

driven teen.
The key is figuring out how to get teenagers to tune into their own motivation.
Photo by Bevan Gold Swain/Thinkstock

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.

Motivating kids who have reached their teenage years without accruing much intrinsic motivation is a complicated affair. Some adolescents have been shown to dramatically increase their test scores with something as simple as the promise of M&M’s. For some kids—the confident ones—cheerleading by laying the compliments on thick spurs them to take on challenges. For the less confident kids, overpraising is disastrous.

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.

 

Dan Griffin is a clinical psychologist and family therapist in the greater Washington area.

 

How To Be As Tough As A Drill Sargeant

By Annie Murphy Paul

Monday, February 10, 2014

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.

Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail

The Atlantic

 JAN 29 2013

A new study explores what happens to students who aren’t allowed to suffer through setbacks.

fail2-top.jpgMatthew Benoit/Shutterstock

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.

Parent Summer Reading Books

Summer reading suggestions from Independent School Management and from NAIS President Pat Bassett:

The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck—101 Extraordinary Solutions for Parents and Teachers
by Ron Clark
In his New York Times bestseller The End of Molasses Classes, renowned educator Ron Clark challenged parents, teachers, and communities everywhere to make a real difference in the lives of our kids, offering revolutionary and classroom-tested ways to uplift, educate, and empower our children. Read this book to find out why so many across the country have embraced these powerful rules.How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character. Through their stories—and the stories of the children they are trying to help—Tough reveals how this new knowledge can transform young people’s lives. He uncovers the surprising ways in which parents do—and do not—prepare their children for adulthood. And he provides us with new insights into how to improve the lives of children growing up in poverty. This provocative and profoundly hopeful book will not only inspire and engage readers, it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.

• Susan Eva Porter’s Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression Is Bad for Everyone is far from just another “little shop of horrors” accounting of the deleterious effects of bullying and the stern discipline and strictures adults should apply to stem it. In fact, it’s just the opposite: a contrarian view of the universal and timeless realities of childhood aggression, the damage adults do by overreacting to run-of-the-mill social tussles and micro-aggressions that are normal, and the deleterious impact of reducing admittedly painful playground conflicts into just three blanket categories: bully, victim, and bystander (the latter now instantly guilty by association, or by inaction to intervene).

Filled with scores of revealing case studies she has witnessed, or counseled about as a child and school psychologist, Porter’s huge contribution is an attempt to reverse the dangerous trend she sees that oversimplifies, misreads, and over-amplifies much of what is now called bullying — such as exclusion at the lunch table in the school cafeteria, or from the pick-up dodge ball game on the playground, or the smarmy cuts on social media. Moreover, when parents of kids who are the target of teasing, unkind remarks, social exclusion, or more serious bullying want a black and white “crime” with capital punishment (“throw them out of school”), and schools adopt inflexible and unrealistic “zero tolerance” policies, we now teach some kids that they are incorrigibly bad to the core and others that they are helpless victims, lessons that are both over-reactions and examples of unhealthy adult “fixed” mindsets rather than “growth” mindsets.

What truly hurts, social pain, is just another in a long list of what seems, at the time, cataclysmic challenges pre-adolescents and adolescents face, and for which they need the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop the “grittiness” necessary to survive the turbulence of life. For those who truly want to understand the subtleties of what bullying is about, Bully Nation is an important contribution to the canon. Reading the book to learn how the parable of Buddha, the suffering woman, and the mustard seed apply is worth the time and effort alone. And considering that the new and wildly expanded definition of bullying “is more about today’s parenting than about child aggression” is a worthy counterpoint to conventional wisdom on the subject, because adults now “conflate desire for children to behave well with children’s ability to do so.” This book is a must-read for parents and educators, who will learn the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

• Catherine Steiner-Adair, school and family psychologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, offers in her new book, The Big Disconnect, a compelling accounting of how technology has become for families “our new home page,” the central organizing factor of our lives, focus, and relationships (or lack thereof). While Steiner-Adair acknowledges the advantages of the wired world, she develops convincingly the observation by psychiatrist Gene Cohen that technology’s powerful stimulation, hyper-connectivity, and interactivity are, for children and adolescents, like “chocolate to the brain,” and argues that parents unwittingly have accepted technology not just as the digital babysitter, but more disturbingly, allowed it to become “the third parent.” This book would be a great assignment for faculty/parent book clubs.

• Abigail James’ The Parents’ Guide to Boys: Help Your Son Get the Most Out of School and Life is yet another tour de force entry in her pantheon of books on gender-specific insights on parenting and teaching, this one on boys, revealing that, to quote Plato, ” Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.” James’ work is Scout-handbook, chock-full of good guidance for parents of boys at all ages, “from 18 months to 90 years of age.” Given that boys are increasingly struggling at home and at school, this book arrives just in the nick of time for us to do something about the crisis. Nuggets include teaching your son that…

  • Failure is the first step towards success.
  • Getting your own way comes at a high cost — making others unhappy or angry.
  • Extrinsic motivation, like money, is temporary.
  • You are your son’s life teacher, not his academic coach.
  • You won’t do your son’s homework — since, like Tom Sawyer, if he can get someone else to do his work, he will.

James’ List of 10 Things to Do for Your Sons:

  • Read to your son every night.
  • Turn off the TV and computer (or at least limit the amount of access).
  • Talk and sing with your son.
  • Play games with him.
  • Let him play by himself or with others without adult interference.
  • Allow him to take risks.
  • Give him chores.
  • Teach him the value of money.
  • Teach him to respect others.
  • Make no threats, only promises.