Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

Psychology Today

Tween’ brains are simply too immature to use social media wisely.

This guest post is by Melanie Hempe, RN, founder of Families Managing Media

Source: interstid/Shutterstock

I really love middle school kids. I have two of them! If you have been through middle-school parenting, you may have noticed what I see: Strange things seem to happen to a tween’s brain the first day they walk into middle school.

One might sum up their main goals in life this way:

  • To be funny at all costs. (Hence, the silly bathroom jokes, talking at inappropriate times in class, and the “anything it takes to be popular” attitude.)
  • To focus on SELF — their clothes, their nose, their body, and their hair.
  • To try new things. They are playing “dress up” with their identity, trying on things to see what fits. They are impulsive and scattered, they are up and they are down, and it even seems that they have regressed in their development on their quest for independence.

As the parent, you are changing, too, as you enter the stage of parenting when you quickly depart from the naïve platform of “My child would never…” to the realization that, “I’m sure my child did that. I’m sorry, and please excuse his behavior, he is going through a phase.”

Your list of daily parenting instruction may include statements like:

  • “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
  • “How many times do I have to tell you not the use that word?”
  • “Stop flipping that bottle!”
  • “Stop burping the ABC’s!”
  • “You’re acting like a two-year-old.”
  • “What were you thinking?”

Then it happens: Maybe because we are exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model…we cave. We act on impulse. Our brain seems to regress like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone.

And with that one little decision comes the world of social media access—something we haven’t thought about and something none of us is prepared for. Because the midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk-taking is high and impulse control is low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Social media was not designed for them. A tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction nor the temptations that come with social media use. While you start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires. Like trying to make clothes fit that are way too big, they will use social media inappropriately until they are older and it fits them better.
  2. Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.
  3. A tween’s “more is better” mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.
  4. Social media is an addictive form of screen entertainment. And, like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
  5. Social media replaces learning the hard social “work” of dealing face-to-face with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
  6. Social media can cause teens to lose connection with family and instead view “friends” as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teen to be attached to your family is just as important now as when they were younger. Make sure that attachment is strong. While they need attachments to their friends, they need healthy family attachment more.
  7. Social media use represents lost potential for teens. While one can argue that there are certain benefits of social media for teens, the costs are very high during the teen years when their brain development is operating at peak performance for learning new things. It is easy for teens to waste too much of their time and too much of their brain in a digital world. We know from many studies that it is nearly impossible for them to balance it all.

How Can Kids Slow Down?

First, we need to slow down and rethink what we are allowing our kids to do. We need to understand the world of social media and how teens use it differently from adults. Here are a few tips that work well for many parents.

  1. Delay access. The longer parents delay access, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also places a greater importance on developing personal authentic relationships first.
  2. Follow their accounts. Social media privacy is a lie: Nothing is private in the digital world, and so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place but know that those settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a verbal phone call instead if they don’t want you to read it on social media.
  3. Create family accounts. Create family accounts instead of individual teen accounts. This allows kids to keep up with friends in a safer social media environment.
  4. Allow social media only on large screens. Allow your teens to only use their social media accounts on home computers or laptops in plain view, this way they will use it less. When it is used on a small private phone screen they can put in their pocket there are more potential problems with reckless use.  The more secret the access, the more potential for bad choices.
  5. Keep a sharp eye on the clock; they will not. Do you know how much time your child spends on social media a day? Be aware of this, and reduce the amount of time your child is on social media across all platforms. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Instead, set one time each day for three days a week for your child to check their social media. Do they benefit from more time than that?
  6. Plan face-to-face time with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 842 friends; four-to-six close friends are enough for healthy social development. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social get-togethers such as a leave-phones-at-the-door party, a home movie night, bowling, board games, cooking pizza, or hosting a bonfire. They crave these social gatherings so encourage them to invite friends over and help them (as needed) to organize the event.
  7. Spend more real non-tech time together. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family show more overall happiness and success in life. They still need us now more than ever. It is easy to detach from them: Teens can be annoying! But attaching to family allows them to detach from the social media drama. Your child needs to feel like they can come home and leave the drama of their social world behind for a few hours. They want you to help them say no to social media and yes to more time with the family. They are craving those moments to disconnect, so make plans and encourage this at home.

Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home; help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment. They have the rest of their life to be entertained by social media, but only a limited time with you.

For more tools to help balance social media use from Families Managing Media, click here

To learn how to reverse the dysregulating effects of screen-time on your child’s mood, focus, and behavior, see Reset Your Child’s Brain.  

30 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR KID INSTEAD OF “HOW WAS YOUR DAY?”

When I picked my son up from his first day of 4th grade, my usual (enthusiastically delivered) question of “how was your day?” was met with his usual (indifferently delivered) “fine.”

Come on! It’s the first day, for crying out loud! Give me something to work with, would you, kid?

The second day, my same question was answered, “well, no one was a jerk.”

That’s good…I guess.

I suppose the problem is my own. That question actually sucks. Far from a conversation starter, it’s uninspired, overwhelmingly open ended, and frankly, completely boring. So as an alternative, I’ve compiled a list of questions that my kid will answer with more than a single word or grunt. In fact, he debated his response to question 8 for at least half an hour over the weekend. The jury’s out until he can organize a foot race.

Questions a kid will answer at the end of a long school day:

  1. What did you eat for lunch?
  2. Did you catch anyone picking their nose?
  3. What games did you play at recess?
  4. What was the funniest thing that happened today?
  5. Did anyone do anything super nice for you?
  6. What was the nicest thing you did for someone else?
  7. Who made you smile today?
  8. Which one of your teachers would survive a zombie apocalypse? Why?
  9. What new fact did you learn today?
  10. Who brought the best food in their lunch today? What was it?
  11. What challenged you today?
  12. If school were a ride at the fair, which ride would it be? Why?
  13. What would you rate your day on a scale of 1 to 10? Why?
  14. If one of your classmates could be the teacher for the day who would you want it to be? Why?
  15. If you had the chance to be the teacher tomorrow, what would you teach the class?
  16. Did anyone push your buttons today?
  17. Who do you want to make friends with but haven’t yet? Why not?
  18. What is your teacher’s most important rule?
  19. What is the most popular thing to do at recess?
  20. Does your teacher remind you of anyone else you know? How?
  21. Tell me something you learned about a friend today.
  22. If aliens came to school and beamed up 3 kids, who do you wish they would take? Why?
  23. What is one thing you did today that was helpful?
  24. When did you feel most proud of yourself today?
  25. What rule was the hardest to follow today?
  26. What is one thing you hope to learn before the school year is over?
  27. Which person in your class is your exact opposite?
  28. Which area of your school is the most fun?
  29. Which playground skill do you plan to master this year?
  30. Does anyone in your class have a hard time following the rules?

10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know

Huffington Post
Posted: 08/07/2015 
KARI KAMPAKIS

It’s rare to hear anyone say they loved middle school. Even people with positive memories never tout it as the best years of their life.

Simply put, it’s an awkward season. It’s a time of constant changes, social shake-ups, swinging emotions, and intense pressures. If I’ve learned anything from working with adolescent girls, it’s how hungry this age group is for comfort and reassurance. I hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes whenever I speak to a group, a look of searching and a longing to hear something — anything — to help them make sense of things.

Please tell me it gets better, their faces silently plead. Tell me this isn’t it.

Well, middle schoolers, I assure you that life picks up. There’s a bigger, more promising world beyond this rite of passage. In the meantime, I have 10 truths to center you. I hope they bring you peace and a little friendly guidance.

Truth #10: Today’s most awkward moments will be tomorrow’s funniest memories. Keep a sense of humor whenever possible.

Those braces on your teeth that collect food? That acne on your face that miracle creams can’t cure? That giddy rush you get when your crush walks by, and you can’t think, talk, or see straight? One day these things will be really funny! They’ll be the memories you rehash again and again with your siblings and oldest friends.

It takes time, but as you gain confidence, your awkward moments become fun to share. You’ll readily admit yours and laugh at the comedy and conversation that result.

Eventually you’ll have a dazzling smile, clear skin, and someone to love. Your current problems will have closure. So stay mindful of the big picture, and remember that even your worst experiences will pass.

Truth #9: You don’t want to peak in middle school (or high school or college, for that matter). The worst goal you can have is popularity. Because what often makes adolescents popular — running with the fast crowd, dominating your peers, living a superficial lifestyle — eventually leads to problems.

A truly successful person gets better with time. You go from being version 1.0 of yourself to version 2.0, 4.0, 6.0, and so on. But when you chase popularity, you peak early. You stop growing and improving because you’re stuck in instant gratification mode, looking for quick fixes to satisfy your needs.

Make it your goal to peak later in life. Make good choices that set you up for a bright future. If you’re not a superstar now, that’s OK. This simply means there are better things ahead as you continue to evolve and learn.

Truth #8: Technology makes it easier than ever to ruin relationships and reputations. We live in an age where people post everything online — feelings, emotions, and pictures. I love technology when it’s used wisely, but too often, it’s used impulsively. We let our fingers jump ahead of our brains, and within seconds, we can trigger hurt, misunderstandings, and serious issues.

So please, think twice before texting, emailing, or posting on social media. Cool off before giving someone a piece of your mind, venting, jumping to conclusions, reacting out of jealousy or anger, embarrassing someone, or sending an inappropriate photo. Use the Internet for good, not as a dumping ground.

And when you have an issue with a friend, call instead of sending texts. It’s easy to put in writing what you’d never say in person, or to interpret a message the wrong way, and the tension this adds to a relationship is hard to recover from.

Truth #7: Surrounding yourself with good company is imperative. There’s an old saying that’s particularly relevant to your age group: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

Yes, you’re called to love everyone, but not everyone deserves a place in your innermost circle. Some people you love up close and personal, and others you love at arm’s length because inviting them into your life invites disaster.

Sooner or later, a bad influence will rub off. You’ll either make choices against your better judgment or wind up in a predicament. As a mom I know told her daughter, she once went out with a guy who was very sweet to her but also wild. She didn’t see the issue until they had their first date — and he took her to a drug dealer’s house.

She told her daughter, “Even though I was innocent, I would have gone to jail if the police had come. I was guilty by association just by being there.”

Good friends lift you up. They don’t put you in risky or compromising situations. To become the best version of yourself, you need friends who hold themselves to high standards and want you to reach your full potential, too.

Truth #6: What makes you different is what makes you great. Middle school is largely about conformity. I see this firsthand because I live near a middle school, and over time I’ve noticed how all the kids dress alike, walk alike, and act alike.

Meanwhile, at my children’s elementary school, I see authenticity and diverse personalities because the kids don’t yet know how to be anything but themselves. It saddens me to know that they, too, will eventually feel pressured to hide what makes them unique.

You’ll never influence the world by trying to be like everyone else in it. You’ll never find your calling by following the crowd. God made you different for a reason, and what sets you apart plays into His plan for you. So listen to that quiet voice inside you and remember yourself as a child. Cling to the passions you had in your early years, because they hold more answers than you know.

Truth #5: It’s OK not to have your life planned out. It’s OK if you haven’t discovered your “thing.” Chances are, you know kids with immense talent and drive. They’ve trained for years in their area of expertise, and they know exactly what they want in life.

Deep down you may be envious and uncomfortable, because you fear you’re getting left behind. You wonder why they have their act together — and you don’t.

But even the best-laid plans will face curveballs. Even the most driven kids will wind up on different paths from those they had originally envisioned. So if your future isn’t mapped out by ninth grade, take heart! You’re still young and have plenty of time to discover what you were born to do. Just set goals for yourself, use your gifts, and head in a good direction. Set a positive trajectory so that when you do discover your thing, you’re ready to soar.

Truth #4: Your uniform is not your identity. Labels are big in middle school, and there’s a confidence that comes from wearing a football jersey, cheerleader uniform, or other type of team attire.

But remember that having a uniform — or even designer clothes — doesn’t increase your worth. You’re special because of who you are, not what you put on your body or what you achieve.

Overnight you can lose your place on a team. You can lose your talents, your wardrobe, your relationships, even your Instagram account. But if you base your identity on the one thing you’ll never lose — God’s love — your foundation is unshakable. You’ll still be standing even if you lose every earthly trapping this world says is important.

Truth #3: Applause can be misleading. You can make a huge mistake and still get cheered on wildly. Through social media, popularity is now quantifiable. You can gauge your performance by how many “likes,” comments, and shares you get.

But remember, numbers alone can be misleading. To get the full picture, you need to measure numbers against the truth. The best applause to live for is the quiet peace inside you. What makes you feel good about yourself? What helps you rest easy at night? Criticizing someone to bring them down or make people laugh won’t bring you peace. Neither will watching someone else beat up on a kid as the crowd cheers him on.

You know the truth by how you feel deep down. And when you seek your applause from within, you don’t need the applause of public approval.

Truth #2: There’s a difference between helpful advice and criticism that holds you back. Be careful who you listen to. Some people want you to succeed. Others don’t. Develop a strong filter for whose words you take to heart — and whose words you ignore.

Some questions to ask yourself are: Do I trust this person? Are they respectable? Do they practice what they preach? Are they the kind of person I hope to become? Do they recognize my talent and potential and encourage me, or do they drag me down by harping on where I fall short?

How others talk to you influences how you talk to yourself. And since that voice in your head impacts your confidence, determination, and willingness to take risks, you want people in your life who speak the truth in love and always with your best interest in mind.

Truth #1: You’re AWESOME. Truly, you are. All these crazy changes are leading to something amazing. In the grand scheme of life, middle school is only a blip, so keep it in check. Have fun, dream big, and make good choices. One day you’ll look back and laugh at the absurdities of this stage, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy a lot of humor now.

This post originally appeared on karikampakis.com. Find Kari on Facebook or check out her new book for teen & tween girls, 10 Ultimate Truths Girls Should Know, released by Thomas Nelson.

Follow Kari Kubiszyn Kampakis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KariKampakis

5 Back-to-School Rules for Cell Phone-Carrying Kids (and 1 for Mom and Dad)

Caroline Knorr Parenting Editor | Mom of one 

Parenting Editor | Mom of one

Whether your kid is heading to school toting a brand-new device or is already a cell-phone pro, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page about what “responsible use” means. You can keep an eye on kids at home (kind of), but at school, they’re on their own. As with any kind of boundary setting, these conversations can be tense. Fortunately, there are only five rules for them to remember — and one for you, to show that you’re all in this together. (Tweens and teens can also play our animated, interactive Digital Compass game to pick up digital-citizen skills.)

Here are our key guidelines for cell-phone carrying kids:

1. Respect the school’s rules. Some schools permit students to use their phones at certain times: between classes, at lunch, on the playground, even occasionally in class. Abusing this privilege could jeopardize your classmates’ freedom. They’ll be mad at you, and your parents could rightly suspend your phone use.

2. Pick up when it’s Mom or Dad. Ugh, it’s the parents calling again. Well, guess who’s paying for your phone? When your mom, dad, or caregiver call, it’s probably very important, so don’t send it to voicemail.

3. Ask permission before downloading anything. Even if you have your own app store account,get sign off on any apps you download. If something has in-app purchases, those costs could wind up on your parents’ bill — so they need to know what extra charges a download may incur. They also need to make sure it’s age appropriate and reasonably good for you.

4. Don’t flaunt it. Owning a cell phone is a privilege that not every kid has access to. It’s OK to be proud of your phone — it’s an expensive piece of equipment for which you’ve been given responsibility — but showing off could make other people feel bad. Also, it could get stolen.

5. Use your phone for good, not evil. You’ll see all kinds of misbehavior and mischief regarding phones in school. Set an example for others by being respectful and responsible with yours. Ask permission before taking someone’s picture. Take a moment to consider whether a text or video could hurt, annoy, or embarrass someone else. Turn off the phone when you’re supposed to. Don’t let the phone be more important than someone standing right in front of you.

And here’s our essential rule for parents:

Don’t text your kid during the school day. Unless it’s a real emergency — like, you’re going to the hospital — resist the urge to text your kid during the school day. Kids have survived for many, many years without talking to their parents while they’re at school — and they need to be allowed independence. And if your kid texts you, make sure he’s not breaking any rules to do so.

A Gossip App Brought My High School to a Halt

Here’s an article from New York Magazine about social networking gone awry at Staples HS in Westport.  Warning, the article contains some graphic language.

M., a high school junior, was rushing to class last Thursday morning when a friend stopped to ask if she was okay. Taken by surprise, she laughed and answered that she was fine. Continuing down the hall, she was met by strange glances and similar inquiries. She was at a loss. What had she done to become a celebrity overnight? It wasn’t until she sat down for her first period class that someone finally told her about Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is an application that allows individuals to post comments anonymously, essentially operating as a Twitter without handles. Sitting at her desk, M. grabbed a friend’s phone and began scrolling through a feed of posts.

“L. M. is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”

“The cheer team couldn’t get uglier.”

“K. is a slut.”

“J. N. is a fag.”

“The fact that O. P. has diabetes makes me happy.”

“S. D. + 10 years = trailer park.”

“Nobody is taking H. to prom because nobody has a forklift.”

“J. T.’s gonna get lynched at SMU.”

“How long do we think before A. B. kills herself?”

“N. likes the taste of thick pussy and wheelchair pussy.”

“99% of guys have tits bigger than J.”

“I probably heard about 10–15 nasty things written about me, some of which I couldn’t even finish reading,” M. says. “M. will let anybody anally finger her.” “M. gave dome for $6.” She had come under more intense attack than most students, but her experience on Thursday was similar to those of dozens of students at Staples High School.

I’m a student at Staples, too. It’s a good, medium-sized public school in Westport, Connecticut. We don’t walk through metal detectors on our way to class, and the main job of our school “security force” is to hand out tickets when students’ Jeeps and Audis park in staff parking spaces. John Dodig, our genial and openly gay principal, greeted my freshman class in 2010 by welcoming us to a school that was “different,” a school that rose above petty high school malice. And as a senior, I’ve found Staples to be a happy, functional, though complexly hierarchical place. The three most popular senior girl groups are the Bots, the Bedfords, and Acrimonious. There are Albone and the Rowdies, both popular senior boy groups. There are the Amigos (popular junior girls), the Cool Asians (none of whom are actually Asian), the Fairies (the soccer team, not the theater kids), the Players (the theater kids, not the soccer team), and many others.

Yik Yak arrived at Staples from Fairfield, the neighboring town, by way of the Dominican Republic, where students from Staples joined students from Fairfield Warde High School on a service trip earlier this month. Fairfield had already been rocked by the app. Students described a scene of pandemonium that eventually resulted in legal action against some who were charged with cyber-bullying. After the service trip was over and the volunteers returned to Staples, word of Yik Yak spread fast.

When you watch stupid movies about teenagers in high school, you roll your eyes at the classic fallout scene in which the hallways are filled with whispering students all gossiping about the same thing. This was exactly what Thursday afternoon looked like at Staples. “Walking through the hallways, everyone was staring at their phones,” says one target. In the course of a few periods, the most private, deplorable thoughts of the Staples student body had been put into writing. And the worst part was that no one knew who was writing this stuff — maybe the asshole you’d expect it from, or maybe the quiet girl in the back of Spanish class.

In the period after lunch, everyone was waiting for the next post. Feeds were refreshed; new batches of unsigned obscenities entertained the student body. “I remember sitting there in class refreshing the page, waiting for someone to say something horrible and awful about me,” said one junior girl. Ms. S. was fully aware of the cause for her European History class’s distraction, as apparently many teachers had downloaded and perused the app during their lunch period. With each post, another girl left class to cry in the bathroom, vent to her guidance counselor, or drive home. “I was shocked, mortified, and embarrassed,” M. says. “I then called my mom and told her I was leaving school.”

During the last period of the day, a demoralized voice came over the loudspeaker: Principal Dodig had decided to address the school. Staples has dealt with social media explosions in the past, most notably the spread of Snapchat sexting and a Facebook cyber-bullying incident whose sexual depravity made high school boys blush. But I’ve never seen Principal Dodig as upset before. Between his sentences were heavy sighs and moments of reflection.

“To all the students in the school, I urge you at least not to look at the site,” he said. “I’ve heard several people today have read some things about them and they’re in tears. Don’t look at it. And if you don’t see it, it won’t bother you.”

His announcement gave Yik Yak new momentum.

“Mr. Dodig molested me with a weed wacker.”

“John Dodig touched my no-no parts.”

*

Yik Yak has been available for download since last November, and anonymity has existed since the dawn of the internet. So why did the app literally bring Staples to a halt last week? Maybe it was a form of emotional release for students who were beginning to relax after months of academic stress. Perhaps it was a way for students to get their bitterness out about their classmates, teachers, and administrators. Or perhaps it was simply the newest, must-have social media thing.

One student told Inklings, the school newspaper, that “kids are just mean these days, and they needed a new way to insult each other.” Maybe. I remember when Formspring and Honesty Box infiltrated my middle school hallways. But Yik Yak felt different. It wasn’t just a new tool for the school’s bullies; it was also an equalizer. No one was safe, regardless of his or her place on the social pyramid. Bots and Amigos were targeted just as much, if not more, than the gays, the fat kids, the nerds, the friendless. “K. sounds like she has a cock in her mouth 24/7,” went a typical attack on an Amigo. Staples Guidance counselor Victoria Capozzi says that one student, prior to finding himself the target of a homophobic post, was completely unaware that his peers even questioned his sexuality. Suddenly, the social 1 percent was subject to the same sort of cyber torment that had in the past been directed at the students at the bottom of the pyramid. Yik Yak gave everyone a chance to take down enemies, reveal secrets, or make shit up in order to obliterate reputations. You didn’t need internet popularity in order for your post to be seen; you just needed to be within a 1.5-mile radius of your target and your audience.

Over the weekend, targets turned to their friend groups for comfort. Group chats were flooded. A sample from one of the popular groups:

“Why am I getting ripped apart?”

“I feel like I’m in Mean Girls.”

“I was really rattled and red in school, I left for last period.”

“I cried.”

“H. will be forever known as the fat girl.”

M. still wasn’t in school on Friday. A senior girl who had also been attacked on Yik Yak told me over the weekend that she dreaded going back. “How do you look a classmate or teacher in the eye knowing that they might have read something about you? Or worse, they might have written something about you?”

Some students want to see the IP addresses of the authors identified. I would too, though I have the depressing suspicion that the students who wrote the worst posts don’t care about the lasting impact that they have had on peoples lives. In conversations with our teachers, guidance counselors, and parents, we constantly hear, “We didn’t have this when we were growing up.” Well, neither did we. Yik Yak and its capacity for anonymous, targeted destruction is new to all of us. By the end of the week Yik Yak had been blocked on Staples property, but it also had raised $1.5 million in funding. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a competitor to Yik Yak on everyone’s phones next week. Are we just supposed to ignore it? I see no solution in sight, and personally, I am thrilled to be graduating in a few weeks.

*Names have been anonymized, and one or two details have been altered slightly, to not make it even worse.

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.

Why Middle School Girls Sometimes Talk Like Babies

The Atlantic

 FEB 18 2014

mikebaird/Flickr

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.