Embracing Children for Who They Are

When you buy a new car you’re provided with a detailed owner’s manual, but even though human beings are far more complex than cars, when new mothers and fathers leave the hospital with a new born, they’re completely on their own.

Jane Brody, in an insightful New York Times blog post of the same title, exhorts parents to appreciate and adapt to their childrens’ differences.

Consider that critical phrase a second time—appreciate and adapt. Easier said then done. Most parents start out parenting each successive child the same. More often than not, they’re too slow to appreciate and adapt to inevitable differences.

Despite the absence of any type of owner’s manual, there are wise parent authors, like Brody herself, and Andrew Solomon (appropriately named), offering excellent help.

Key excerpts from Brody’s post:

Contrary to what some parents might believe or hope for, children are not born a blank slate. Rather, they come into the world with predetermined abilities, proclivities and temperaments that nurturing parents may be able to foster or modify, but can rarely reverse.

The goal of parenting should be to raise children with a healthy self-image and self-esteem, ingredients vital to success in school and life. That means accepting children the way they are born — gay or straight, athletic or cerebral, gentle or tough, highly intelligent or less so, scrawny or chubby, shy or outgoing, good eaters or picky ones.

Of course, to the best of their ability, parents should give children opportunities to learn and enjoy activities that might be outside their natural bent. But, as attested to in many a memoir, forcing children to follow a prescribed formula almost always backfires.

For example, everyone in my family is a jock. . . except one of my four grandsons. Now 10, he is an intellectual, and has been since age 3, when he learned the entire world’s atlas of animals. He absorbs scientific information like a sponge and retains it. He can tell you about deep-sea creatures, planets and stars, chemical reactions, exotic caterpillars, geological formations — you name it — and he’s a whiz at the computer. But he has no athletic interest or apparent ability. His parents have introduced him to a variety of team and individual sports, but so far none has clicked.

Rather than try to remake him into someone he is not, the challenge for all of us is to appreciate and adapt to his differences, love him for who he is and not disparage him for what he is not. While the other three boys get basketballs, bicycles and tennis rackets as gifts, for his 10th birthday I gave him a huge book on the universe, which became his bedtime reading.

One persuasive voice for differences in children and how families must adapt better is Andrew Solomon, author of an ambitious new book, “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” published this month by Scribner.

He makes a strong case for accepting one’s children for who they are and, at the same time, helping them become the best they can be. Especially poignant is his account of a family with a high-functioning son with Down syndrome. For years, the boy progressed academically on pace with his peers and was a poster child for what a person with Down syndrome could do. But when the son could go no further, his mother recognized that he needed to be in a group home.

“We had worked so hard to make him the Down syndrome guy who didn’t need it,” the mother told Mr. Solomon. “But I had to look at what was best for him, and not some ideal we had built up for ourselves.”

Most of the parents interviewed found a lot of meaning and many rewards in dealing with a child who was different. “They told me it has given them a so much richer life that they wouldn’t have given it up for all the world,” Mr. Solomon said. “There are many ways to exist in this world and many different ways to be happy.”

He added: “You want your children to achieve and be comfortable with who they are. You should advocate for them and help them develop the skills to advocate for themselves. But parents shouldn’t try to mold their children. When you expect your kids to fit into a mold, especially a mold of your own making, you’ll be disappointed.”

Parents shouldn’t beat themselves up for not getting the appreciating and adapting just right. They should seek out and embrace positive examples of flexible, loving parenting all around them.

Epic Parenting Fail

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s in Kentucky, Ohio, and Southern California, I enjoyed amazing freedom. When I was six, seven, and eight, I spent my summers swimming at a local pool and playing golf at an adjoining nine hole par-3 course. With my clubs outstretched across my handlebars I biked a mile plus to the course. No helmet, major road crossing mid-way, no problem.

I’d be gone all morning often returning in the afternoon with my mom and sibs. Thus the skin cancer. While Wonderyears Wayne brandished his legend on the 10 meter platform, I decided between Twinkies and HoHos.*

From nine to twelve it was pickup football EVERYday after school. Despite being built like a 3-iron, I just wouldn’t go down. An 80 pound Marshawn Lynch. We’d play on our spacious, fenceless, suburban Ohio lawns, or on especially rainy or snow days, we’d jog along a wooded trail to the Talmadge High School field where the objective was to win while sliding as far as possible in the muddy grass. On Friday nights in the winter I’d take the same trail to the gym to watch high school basketball games.

Fast forward to today, where my wife and I and our friends grossly overplan every childhood activity**. If you had asked my mom where I was at any given non-school moment, odds are she wouldn’t have known. That’s why she was caught off guard when a construction worker chased me darn near into our house after friends and I raised hell on his site. And that’s why, one spring, she threatened to “never take me to the Emergency Room again” when I called to tell her I cut my foot wide open while playing around barefoot on a just melted tennis court. Today, she’d be tarred and feathered for her laissez-faire parenting.

But I lived. More than that, I flourished, because I was allowed to learn from bonehead decisions. Today, parents are squelching their kids with hyper-organized activities and constant monitoring. Recent research reveals that on average, even today’s college students text and/or talk to their parents twice a day. Co-dependence trumps independence.

Why the over-involvement and constant contact? My hypothesis is an irrational media-fueled fear of childhood abductions. My guess is there are the same or even fewer child abductions (per capita) today than in the 60’s and 70’s, but when they happen they get amplified in people’s minds as a result of cable news shows, People Magazine, and the 24/7 news cycle. By tuning into the media bullshit, we’ve helped create a false sense of unmitigated danger.

And so we end up with soccer leagues for three year olds and global position satellite devices for teens’ cars. And to what effect? Young people who aren’t passionate about much of anything because they’ve spent the bulk of their childhoods doing what their parent(s) have wanted them to.

Bethrothed and I talked this through on the way home from Seventeen’s last swim meet. It’s not a coincidence that she only swims in-season when adults expect her to. A friend of hers, an ace violinist, is sick and tired of playing the violin. Neither have ever been even close to the ER.

The GalPal and I have regrets, but also know there was a certain inevitability to our parenting approach given the “tipping point” created by our friends’ decision making. We tried to swim upstream one summer, honestly we did, deciding not to schedule any activities at all. Turned out few if any of our daughters’ friends were around thanks to a steady schedule of drama, sport, music, and dance camps.

If you’re twenty-five or thirty and just starting a family there is one escape. Buy a small farm. Raise animals and grow food. If your kids have to feed chickens, milk cows, and repair fences, they’ll spend far less time playing adult organized activities and facebooking (yes, that’s a new verb).

Of course there are legitimate things to worry about, for older children especially, alcohol and drug abuse, driving under the influence, and teen pregnancy. Minimize those risks by having dinner together, checking in regularly, knowing your children’s friends, and listening. Eliminate them by scheduling all of your children’s time, putting a video cam in their bedrooms, and monitoring their every move.

In the end, the choice isn’t entirely yours, in large part, it’s the families in your hood.

* in hindsight I should have said, “Hey girls, someday I’m gonna crush the Platform Primadonna at Ironman Canada.”

** kid you not, there are about eight parent committees to choose among if you want to help plan the class of 2013’s post graduation Senior Night

Stop Trying to Control Things Outside of Your Control

William Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, explains we’re susceptible to negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy because of our evolutionary programming. Each of those negative emotions increased our earliest ancestors’ odds of survival, so overtime, they became engrained in us. For example, early humans who weren’t afraid of lions were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. Similarly, those that didn’t worry incessantly about having enough to eat were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

Irvine explains the good news. Since we can reason, we can understand our evolutionary predicament and take conscious steps to at least partially escape it. For example, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. We need to learn to “misuse” our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes us susceptible to negative emotions.

In short, Stoics pursue tranquility. The major impediment to tranquility is our evolutionary programming. Tranquility and inner joy is achieved by “misusing our reasoning ability” via repeated practice at using specific Stoic psychological techniques.

For example, we must overcome our evolutionary tendency to worry by determining which things we can’t control. Irvine labels this the “trichotomy of control.” Once we identify those things we have no control over, we can use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties related to those things. Doing that improves one’s chances of gaining tranquility. To better understand the trichotomy of control, take a piece of paper, and using a ruler or folding it, make three columns. Label the first “absolutely no control”, the second, “total control”, and the third “some control”. It’s easy to quibble with “absolutely” and “total”, but work with me.

Here are some possible items for each column just to get your wheels turning. No control—the weather, the eventual death of loved ones, our own gradual physical decline, and how fast a competitor might show up at your next race. Total control—to eat nutritious food, to exercise daily, to get adequate sleep, to marry or not, to have children or not, to vote or not, to wear boxers or briefs. Some control—to shape your children’s values, to reduce your commute, to make your work environment more pleasant, to protect the environment.

It doesn’t take long into this exercise to realize the lines between the columns should probably be dotted since there’s often blurring. Not as fancy sounding, but a continuum of control would be better than Irvine’s “trichotomy”. The whole point is to learn to let go of everything that makes up the “no control” anxiety-producing end of the chart or continuum. Accept the fact that if you live in the Pacific Northwest it’s going to be overcast for seven or eight months of the year. And there’s going to be an incessant light rain for those seven or eight months. I originally wrote, “incessant, annoying light rain,” but that’s the exact point. Only things we have some or a lot of control over should have the potential to annoy us.

One last example of learning to let go of those things beyond one’s control. One night last week I asked Seventeen what she was swimming in the meet the next day. “The 50 and 100 free I think.” Internal dialogue. “What?! That’s what the beginners swim. That’s embarrassing for a fourth-year co-captain.” Actual response, “Really?!”

Parenting fail. She could feel my disappointment. In a bathtub (too much information too late alert) partially filled with very warm water, I replayed our brief exchange in my mind. I realized I could give in to negative emotions and be frustrated that she doesn’t approach high school athletics they way I did or the way I think others should or I could recognize that she’s an independent young adult who can choose not to train until the season and who thinks of athletics first and foremost as another way of having fun with friends.

It doesn’t matter whether she swims a slow 50 or a fast 500. Positive parenting rests upon unconditional love. Post bath I attempted a recovery. “I’m really looking forward to watching you swim the 50 and 100 tomorrow afternoon.” “Good!” she said in a way that communicated forgiveness. All was well with Seventeen. And the world.

The Great Marriage Divide

The GalPal and I enjoyed a fun-filled 25th anniversary last Wednesday. We celebrated by bicycling the Burke-Gilman trail in Seattle, kayaked on Lake Union, took in the King Tut Exhibit, ate at the China Outpost as directed by the Principal, and swam in Lake Washington. More fun than a couple should be allowed to have in one day. Congratulations to my best friend for putting up with me for a quarter cent.

Speaking of marriage, sobering sociology compliments of the New York Times.

Primary point—Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed.

Key excerpts:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans . . . are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women . . . are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides . . . . Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women . . . who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Whether and whom to marry are the most monumental of decisions, yet most people make them when they’re young and aren’t entirely sure about what they want to do for a living, or how to manage personal finances, or solve conflicts peacefully, or parent.

And through a steady stream of romantic comedies, Hollywood promotes the idea that love and marriage are equal parts physical and emotional. In nearly complete contrast, the New York Times journalists imply love and marriage is a practical partnership, one where two incomes and two parents are needed to successfully manage a household and reliably raise children with promising life prospects.

The stats are depressing and another reason I suppose to go to college. Of course though, finishing college and then marrying is no guarantee that anyone will make it twenty five years. That takes perseverance, commitment, bicycles, and kayaks.

The Burke-Gilman trail

Data Driven Parenting

There’s a new religion in town. Data collection. And unlike mainstream Protestantism, the number of adherents is growing rapidly.

In the Atlantic, Mya Frazier asks whether statistical analytics make for healthier, happier babies—or more anxious adults.

The answer Mya is more anxious adults. The data driven gospel continues to gain momentum and data skeptics like me are getting our asses whupped. As a fraternity brother said to John Belushi in one of the best movies ever made in Eugene, Oregon, “The war is over man.

Frazier writes:

THE DAY THEIR SON was born, Monica Rogati and her husband began obsessively plotting his life via thousands of bits of data they punched into the smartphone app Baby Connect. They called the data “baby I/O,” a reference to the computing expression input/output and the kind of “geeky joke,” as Rogati puts it, that you might expect from a pair of professional data crunchers with doctorates from Carnegie Mellon. With the baby’s feedings (input), diapers (output), sleep sessions, and other accomplishments duly registered, he generated 300 data points each month.

This may sound like a lot of information for a very small person, but it’s typical grist for apps designed to tally a baby’s every blink and burp and sniffle, in hopes of charting his development over time. Among Baby Connect’s competitors are Total Baby, Baby Log, iBabyLog, Evoz, and the new Bedtime app from Johnson’s Baby, as well as Web-based programs such as Trixie Tracker (which an enterprising stay-at-home dad named after his daughter). Since Baby Connect launched, in 2009, Rogati and 100,000 other users have logged 47 million “events,” including 10 million diaper changes (with annotations in exacting and unmentionable detail).

The goal of these apps is to make parenthood “a more quantifiable, science-based endeavor.” The statistical analytics or “crowdsourcing” will provide an early-warning system to help parents determine what is and isn’t out of the ordinary: “He’s in the 50th percentile, he is perfectly normal.” Or “This is in the 99.9th percentile. Maybe this is not normal.” It will be a way, Monica Rogati says, “to debug your baby for problems.”

Yikes, as they’re studying the spreadsheets, crawl kid! As fast as you can.

Well wait, before criticizing these apps, I have to confess, I’m a hypocrite. I like me some fitness data. I wear a watch that reads satellites so I know how far I’ve run, my time for every mile, how much elevation I’ve gained, and approximately how many calories I’ve burned. Despite my interest in some data that the Rogatis might find overkill, these baby apps strike me as super-superfluous. I understand parents want to know “what’s normal”, but that’s where conversation with grandparents, friends, and written references has served us well through the centuries.

Are the Rogatis leading us down a path to being more smart-phone dependent, and thereby, less likely to lean on family and friends? Is the passing down of wisdom from grandparent to parent passe´? Are we officially throwing in the towel on interpersonal conversation and community? And this classic?

I should probably just zip it and step to the side so I don’t get trampled upon as the masses storm the iTunes store for the latest and greatest app.

What is the world coming to?

Can Grit Be Taught?

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology prof, studies “grit” which she defines as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. In this 18 minute-long TED talk titled, “True Grit: Can perseverance be taught?” she summarizes her research without really answering the question.

Her premise, I assume, jives with most everyone’s life experience—achievement involves far more than natural intelligence. An impassioned, focused, single-minded person who perseveres in the face of obstacles almost always accomplishes more than the really smart person who switches from project to project and quits when things don’t go smoothly.

From wikipedia: Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

I think “resilience” is synonymous with “grit”. So can resilience or grit be taught? If not, why not? If so, how?

A lot of especially resilient or gritty people seem to have tough childhoods in common. Yet, there are a lot of people who had tough childhoods who aren’t particularly resilient or gritty. So does genetics or “nature” play a part? Probably, but that doesn’t mean one’s environment is irrelevant. I suspect one’s environment is more influential than one’s DNA.

So what kind of environments cultivate resilience or grit? This recent essay titled “Even Happiness Has a Downside” provides insight into family settings that are unlikely to cultivate resilience or grit—most contemporary ones where the parenting default is to remove obstacles from children’s lives. An excerpt: “. . . being happy, being satisfied, saps the will to strive, to create. It’s why we don’t usually expect trust-fund babies to be cracker-jack entrepreneurs. For all our happiness talk, we actually cultivate dissatisfaction. We don’t want to hog-wallow in the useless sort of contentment that H.L. Mencken derided as “the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard.” 

Of the cuff, in her TED talk, Duckworth uses a  related phrase that may be the ultimate target for those interested in cultivating resilience or grit—”intestinal fortitude”. Related question. If a young person is to learn “intestinal fortitude” are they more likely to learn it in school, through a curriculum designed to cultivate it or at home or in their community by observing adults who model it? I would enjoy the opportunity to design a resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude curriculum, but when it comes to cultivating those things in young people, outside of school modeling probably holds far more promise.

Young people are unlikely to develop resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude given the extreme child-centeredness that characterizes contemporary parenting. That doesn’t mean families should intentionally accentuate dysfunction, but they shouldn’t shield their children from the inevitable headwinds every family faces either.

I’ve enjoyed coaching girls high school swimming from time-to-time the last few years. The swimmers are wonderful young people, but few of them show much resilience or grittiness. When practice is most difficult they suddenly have to go to the bathroom or stretch their shoulders. They’re unaccustomed to being truly fatigued and they’re mentally unable to push through temporary physical pain. They have a lot of great personal attributes, but for most of them, intestinal fortitude is not among them.

At dinner tonight (Sunday the 15th), the Good Wife suggested we watch Mad Men tonight after it airs (to avoid commercials) instead of Monday or Tuesday night as has been our recent habit. Why? So that Sixteen can watch her show uninterrupted Monday night. Some context. Sixteen is a great kid, works exceptionally hard at school, and looks forward to chilling in front of the t.v. for an hour at the end of several hours of homework (with some Facebook mixed in for good measure). The Good Wife’s intentions are understandable, it’s a well deserved dessert, but I ask you Dear Reader, how gritty is our next generation likely to be if they’re not even expected to share a television from time to time?

[Postscript—Thanks Kris for the Duckworth link.]

When Parents are Too Child-Centered

[Adapted from Shirley S. Wang in the Wall Street Journal]

Anthropologist Elinor Ochs and her colleagues at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families have studied family life in Samoa and the Peruvian Amazon region, but for the last decade they have focused on the American middle class.

Ten years ago, the UCLA team recorded video for a week of nearly every moment at home in the lives of 32 Southern California families. The families owned their own homes and had two or three children, at least one of whom was between 7 and 12 years old. About a third of the families had at least one nonwhite member, and two were headed by same-sex couples. Each family was filmed by two cameras and watched all day by at least three observers. The researchers acknowledge their presence may have altered some of the families’ behavior.

Among the findings: The families had a very child-centered focus. Parents intend to develop their children’s independence, yet raise them to be relatively dependent, even when the kids have the skills to act on their own.

Ochs, who began her career in far-off regions of the world, noticed that American children seemed relatively helpless compared with those in other cultures she and colleagues observed. In Samoa children serve food to their elders, waiting patiently in front of them before they eat. In Peru’s Amazon region children climb tall trees to harvest papaya and help haul logs to stoke fires. By contrast, Los Angeles parents focused more on the children, using simplified talk with them, doing most of the housework and intervening quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task.

In 22 of 30 families, children frequently ignored or resisted appeals to help. In the remaining eight families, the children weren’t asked to do much. In some cases, the children routinely asked the parents to do tasks, like getting them silverware. ‘How am I supposed to cut my food?’ one girl asked her parents.

Asking children to do a task led to much negotiation, and when parents asked, it sounded often like they were asking a favor, not making a demand, researchers said. Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.

Another finding: When the fathers came home from work, 86% of the time at least one child didn’t pay attention to him. “The kids,” the researchers noted, “are oblivious to their parents’ perspectives.” The researchers theorize that stems from a tendency in U.S. society to adapt to and focus on the children, rather than teaching children to focus on others. Americans tend to encourage children to pay attention to objects more than faces, emphasizing colors and shapes, for instance, over people. In Samoa, children are expected to be attentive to others from a very young age, and parents stress focusing on what others need.

This is a Monday, so I understand if you’re wondering what this research has to do with schooling. In short, everything. Teachers are intimately familiar with the “learned helplessness” the researchers allude to and the “helicopter parents” who swoop in and try to fix their children’s problems for them. No wonder it’s so hard for teachers to get students to think first and foremost about what’s in the best interest of the classroom.

I believe middle (and upper-middle and upper) class America has long since passed a child-centered point of diminishing returns. What explains this profound, albeit relatively recent trend? I wonder if the answer lies in large part in the aforementioned sentence, “Parents interviewed about their behavior said it was often too much trouble to ask.” By which I wonder if they mean, “After working all day we’re too exhausted to teach our children how to set the table, how to make their beds, what to do with their dishes after meals, let alone to remind them of those responsibilities, and also how to pay attention to others’ feelings, and how to solve problems themselves.”

Too few parents realize that by investing time and energy on the front-end, through teaching their children how to help around the house, how to interact respectfully with others, and how to peacefully resolve conflicts, they save themselves major frustration and hardship on the back-end.

Plus, by investing lots of teaching time on the front-end, they increase the odds that their children will become thoughtful, appreciative young adults who know the world doesn’t revolve around them.

And when caring, respectful, selfless students outnumber entitled, dismissive, self-centered ones, teaching will become especially rewarding. And everyone will live happily ever after. Amen.

An Open Letter to College Admissions Committees

From Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School–originally published here. See my response at the bottom.

As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

• They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

• They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

• They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

• They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

• They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching. [end of letter]

Props to Mr. Knight for having the courage to point out the emperor has no clothes on. However, he doesn’t go far enough. Denise Clark Pope illustrates the problem in gory detail in her 2003 book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. Knight’s solution to the problem of grade engineering, introduce high stakes Advanced Placement-like end of course exams, is an unsatisfying fix.

We must dig deeper. We have to not only acknowledge the detrimental effects of academic competition, but experiment with narrative forms of assessment and learning structures where students are expected to work together in substantive ways, like most of us do in our families, in our civic organizations, in our workplaces. Myopic, “grades as an end-all, be-all parenting” and intense individualism endemic to the U.S. are the greatest impediments to change. When honest, many “A” students say what they like most about getting “A’s” is knowing their classmates don’t receive them. I don’t see how A.P.-like exams will do anything to dent the zero-sumness that explains most of the behavior Knight laments.

Adolescents are the most social of animals, yet in school, we almost always require them to work individually and we assess their work individually. And of course, college admissions offices assess them individually too. But talk to eighteen and nineteen year olds about what they most value from their high school experience and almost to a person they’ll say the groups they were apart of—band, drill team, service clubs, student government, choir, orchestra, drama, athletic teams. Why? Because in contrast to third period physics, they develop collective identities in those activities and enjoy the community that results from them.

What do you think about Knights’ description of the problem and proposed fix?

The Most Constructive Ways to Praise Children

Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher and prof has written extensively about how parents should and shouldn’t praise their children.

She writes:

A certain amount of praise for children is positive, but I think many parents tend to over praise their kids, especially with the wrong kind of praise. We did a survey that found that 85% of parents believe you must praise your child’s intelligence in order for them to have self-confidence, but in fact, confidence isn’t really built this way.

Most young children have so many things that they love and enjoy that they don’t really need a lot of praise to be encouraged to do these things. A parent might share the child’s enjoyment and get into it with them, but kids don’t need a lot of praise for things they already enjoy.

The danger with praising children when they don’t really need it is that it sends the message that what they’re doing is for you rather than for them. Children will then stop asking themselves if they are enjoying what they are doing and start looking at whether or not they are being praised for it.

I must have botched this big time because when Second Born played youth soccer she’d inevitably kick the ball, turn to find her mother and me with the precision of a Moslem seeking Mecca, and just beam. Run, make a pass, pivot towards parents, lose track of opponent, smile ear to ear. Repeat. Dweck probably would have dwecked me because I tended to give a thumbs up. Later on, when it reached the point of ridiculousness, I told her to just play ball and I quit affirming her when she glanced. The damage was done though, the Pavlovian “have to make parental contact” mania continued. Come to think of it, I still give a thumbs up before and after high school and college swim races.

She explains a common pitfall:

Many parents praise the wrong things. They’ll praise the child’s intelligence or talents thinking they’re giving the child confidence and faith in his abilities. For example a parent might say: “Wow you’re so good at this,” “Look what you did–you’re so good at this.” Praising intelligence or talents pleases children for a moment, but as soon as they encounter something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates. What happens is that when things are hard they worry that they don’t in fact have the intelligence necessary to accomplish the task, and in the end they lose self-esteem.

From there, what we find is that their confidence evaporates, children stop enjoying what they are doing, their performance plummets, and they’ll lie. When we asked what score they earned on a test 40% of the kids who were praised for their intelligence lied about their scores. We found that when you praise a child’s intelligence, you equate their performance with their worth. If a child’s been told “Wow, you’re so smart, I’m so proud of you” for something he’s done well, when he doesn’t do well he’ll try to protect his ego and instead of being honest and addressing his mistakes, he’ll cover them up.

Okay, if that’s the wrong way to praise children, what’s the right way? Dweck:

The alternative is praising kids for the process they’ve used. For example, you might praise their efforts or their strategy by saying: “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it,” or “You’ve tried so many different ways and you found the one that works, that’s terrific.”

You’re essentially appreciating what they’ve put into their performance to make it a success. With this method of praise, if kids hit a setback they’ll think “OK, I need more effort or a new strategy to figure this out.” We found that when these kids run into difficulties their confidence remains, their enjoyment in the task remains, their performance keeps getting better, and they tell the truth.

If a child does something quickly and easily, like getting an “A” on an assignment that you know wasn’t very hard for them most parents will say: “Wow you’re so smart you didn’t really have to work at this,” or “Wow you’re so good at this, you got it right away.” Instead, I suggest people say “Well that’s nice, but let’s do something where you can learn a bit more.” It’s really important to not equate doing something easily with being smart or “good at it.” If a child has a hard time with another assignment she’ll start thinking: “I didn’t get it right away–I had to struggle– I made mistakes– I’m not good at this– I’m not going to do this,” and the original praise ends up discouraging the child later on.

Everything worthwhile requires some amount of struggle and some coming back from mistakes. The best gift you could give your child is for him to learn how to enjoy effort and embrace his (or her) mistakes.

Dweck’s insightful parenting recommendations apply to educators, coaches, babysitting grandparents, anybody connected to pipsqueaks. Here’s a former, closely related post titled “The Two Types of Self-Esteem“.

[I’m indebted to Alisa Stoudt on Education.com for most of this post.]

Celebrity Calls Urge Students To Get Up

This National Public Radio story by Veronica Devore pains me:

Tyra Banks, rappers Nicki Minaj and Wiz Khalifa plus many other celebrities are behind an initiative from the Get Schooled Foundation to increase attendance in American high schools. Students and parents can sign up for the twice-weekly wake up calls that, in combination with school-wide attendance challenges and activities rolled out in 90 schools across the nation, encourage teens to get up and get to school.

Marie Groark, Executive Director of the Get Schooled Foundation calls attendance a “silent epidemic” that often goes unaddressed in favor of encouraging students to get to college or make something of themselves. When they’re only focused on the long view, she says, parents and students don’t think about the importance of just being in school every single day.

The student response to the robocalls has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Groark. The largest attendance gains from the program have come in the ninth grade, a crucial time for students to build good attendance habits and get integrated into the school culture.

“Ideally every parent in America would be reinforcing how important it is to go to school every day, but that’s just not happening,” Groark says. “We could sit around and blame the parents, or we could step in and think of creative ways to close the gap. At the end of the day, we can’t have another generation graduate at 67 percent – our kids and our country can’t afford it.”

This initiative is addressing what almost any high school teacher would tell you is one of the more frustrating aspects of their work. The phrase “silent epidemic” is excellent, but what does it say about our culture that many adolescents are motivated more by an automated celebrity voicemail than by living, breathing parents and guardians.

Keep making the calls as long as they’re making a positive difference, but using celebrities as parent surrogates or complaining about how little parents are doing to encourage academic achievement are not our only options. What about digging deeper and exploring why so many students don’t attend school regularly? Are students opting out because of lifeless curricula; or because of dated, boring teaching methods; or because there are few supports to help them catch up to the peers they’ve fallen behind; or some combination of factors?

Typically, high achieving students follow the footsteps of their parent(s), guardian(s), and older siblings who have modeled the benefits of doing well in school. The common thread is they don’t want to let down loving, caring adults in their lives, most often their parents. Celebrity calls are a superficial, stop-gap measure that don’t do anything to reverse the anti-intellectualism that contributes to students slighting school. Until we update curricula and teaching methods, provide more tutoring and related supports to low achieving students, and hold parents accountable for the silent epidemic, too many desk chairs will remain empty.