Good Job: Um, Am I Allowed to Say That?

I came across several articles recently about parenting that I found truly fascinating.  They have made me think about my own childhood and the ways I’m raising my kids.  The first one that got me thinking is about the danger in praising your child in the way that so many of us do (and yes, I’ve definitely been in this camp).  A truly interesting study was conducted about students and how they respond the particular types of praise.

They gave two groups of students the same test.  At the end, one group was praised for being smart and the other for working hard.  They then asked them which follow-up test they would like, one that was the same level or one that was a little harder from which they could learn something new.  The “smart” kids chose the same level test.  The “hard workers” chose the harder test.  They tried several different ways of measuring this effect and found it to continue to be valid.

Reading the comments was almost as interesting as reading the article.  Many people talked about how general praise (good job, smart girl, nice writing) made them anxious about their ability to repeat the success. Was their success a fluke?  Would people find out that the first time had just been luck?  Think about this, it is a very powerful message.  It is an exceptionally important point for parents.  If we praise our child for “doing a good job” what will they do the next time?  Do they know what they did well? If we say we’re “proud of them” will they know how to continue doing the things that make us proud?  I started thinking about (and listening to) the way I praise the Beans.  And then I changed it.

I’ve started praising the fact that they put in hard effort to get good results rather than the results themselves.  It’s helped me think through the fact that they are putting in a great effort and working hard is more valuable to them than getting an A.  Not that getting A’s wasn’t sacrificed when I put them in an Arabic language program that’s tough (except JuniorBean… we won’t go there that kid could probably gets As in Chinese if we put him on the playground for a week!).  I’ve also recognized that the fact that they are smart (if they are) does nothing for them.  It’s using those brains that makes the difference.  I push Junior Bean harder (having him read ButterBean’s stories) because things at his grade level are too easy and I don’t want him too used to that.  I got far too used to everything coming very easy.  It can make you lazy…  I’m also encouraging them to try things that are too hard to see what they can learn from them.  I let them know in advance that these things are likely above their level, but will be a great challenge to teach them new things.

The second article I read talks about how good parenting can raise test scores on the much-bandied-about PISA test.  They studied what actions on behalf of parents led to improved scores.  They found that reading every day to your first grader makes a huge difference.  Most interesting to me is the fact that supporting your child’s education makes the biggest difference.  This could be reading with your child, talking about their day, making sure they get to school.  These types of activities are more important for academic success than just playing with your child.  It makes sense.  I will say that I think all kids need some of both.  They need to see that Mom and Dad just want to spend time with them and be with them.  But, it’s nice to see that the Mom-things that I like to do are also particularly valuable.  Personally, I believe that playing Barbies or cars or whatnot is a particular form of torture… but I’ll read 20 books to the kids.

We, in fact, do read every day.  And we talk about what we read.  I actually thought that was a no-brainer that everyone knew, but have recently realized that some parents are just reading the story and moving on.  Don’t get me wrong, reading the story is valuable.  But, think through what reading does for you.  It provokes your thought.  It makes you think about your opinions and why you hold them.  It is a gateway into another world.  But how will your children know that?  Well, they’ll know that because you will teach them when reading.  When you read books with your kids, ask them questions.  First, make sure they understood the content.  then, move deeper than that.  In a story with a main character that is different than the others, ask how you think they felt.  Ask what your kids think happened after the story ended.  Talk about how they might react in the same situation.  In other words, just like you teach your child to add or subtract, teach them how to gain meaning from books.  It isn’t just a nice story, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.  Show them that.

The other thing this article did is something that is very important to me as well.  It shifted the responsibility for learning from solely on the teacher to shared with the parents.  It acknowledges that we need good teachers.  But we also need good parents.  If your child is struggling with reading, don’t ask what the teachers are doing at school.  First look at what you are doing at home.  Have you sat down to read with your child?  Have you gotten early readers that promote good reading skills?  If so, what challenges is your child having?  Does it seem like it’s a learning issue?  Address what you observe with the teachers, making it a partnership to good learning.

Also show your child you’re interested in what they’re doing and learning.  I found it telling that they found talking with your kids about their day and what they’ve learned was more valuable than being a member of the PTA and involved at the school.  While I’m sure both are meaningful and we need both, your child clearly needs to feel you are interested in THEIR learning, not just the learning environment or community.  Certainly, test scores aren’t the be all and end all in any way.  But, they can be useful in measuring how well your child is learning.  And whether you regard testing as valuable to your particular situation, find ways to measure for yourself how well your child is understanding and internalizing the information.

The third article is an interesting one talking about how important talent is relative to practice.  The article is, in part, refuting the idea that has taken root due to the success of books like Malcolm Gladwell’s the outliers.  Gladwell talks about the fact that excellence often comes down to practicing.  He cites a study done where musicians who practiced 10,000 hours and were considered excellent.  5,000 made for good musicians.  It seemed, according to the study, that working hard would make the difference.  In this article, they talk about how the study tells only part of the story.

The author of the article cites a different study that found:

The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

Interesting interpretation of that data to me.  While I find earning a doctorate, securing a patent, and publishing all very interesting, I’m not sure they necessarily rate as “real world” advantages.  You don’t meet that many PhD holders in the “real world”.  In fact, you do see a lot of Doctorates in academia – rather the opposite of the real world.  Patent holders can be part of the real-world, but not the real world most of us live in.  Do you find that your life in incomplete and you can’t perform your job because you never got a patent.  Unlikely.  In fact, I tend to think of patent holders as tinkerers and inventors.  Not exactly the fodder for real-world interactions.

Bottom line, the advantages he shows aren’t so much part of most people’s real-world.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re not the stuff that everyday success (regardless of how you define it, unless the definition includes getting a PhD, obtaining a patent or publishing) are they?

The finding from the authors own research I did find interesting.  His work on working memory capacity and the impact it had on the ability to sight-read for musicians was interesting.  But I’d like to know more about applicability across professions.  He refutes the idea that IQ is most valuable when considering new and unfamiliar tasks with his study regarding sight-reading for musicians (the very definition of sight-reading is that it is new and unfamiliar).  But, in all he may be onto something. Certain types of intellectual ability may very well definitively impact certain types of success.  But the bottom line for me, as a parent, is that trying hard matters.  After all, a B student can earn a master’s as easily as their “smarter” sibling.  If we combine all of these thing together, the end result for me is that I need to challenge each of my kids to be the best that THEY can be with their talents.  And whether they have the greatest intellectual ability or the least among the three, each one can set and achieve goals if I teach them the right skills to do so.  So whether talent matters or not, we’ll be trying to the best we can with what we’ve got… because if we do our best in an area that we’re interested in, I think we often find that we have talents of which we simply weren’t aware.

Happy Perils and Talents!







4 thoughts on “Good Job: Um, Am I Allowed to Say That?

  1. While I made many mistakes in helping my children grow, there were some things I may have done that may have helped. I LOVED to sit and talk to them. Had another person in a restaurant who was sitting close to just the 3 of us come over to me after they finished their meal and say, “I love the way you sit and talk to your children. (They were about 3 and 4 at the time)”. Their ideas were interesting to me and when they asked questions, they were good questions. But one thing I did that seemed to not be helpful was to try to help them look at tests and try to figure out what kinds of things they had missed so that we could maybe go further to relearn or better learn that area of the project. One of my kids resented it, saying that I didn’t know what the teacher was trying to teach and I didn’t know how to do it. (And I may not have, but was willing to learn. But that child would listen to noone but the teacher. LOL) The other resented the idea (which I may not have presented well) since it appeared that I was only interested in ‘A’s’.
    As a young person myself I used to get quite frustrated that people were always telling me that I was not living up to my potential. I think after testing me they determined that I was quite bright. But it did not help me at all know where to go or how to ‘live up to my potential’. This happened once at the University of Delaware. I guess, get out the books and study much harder — I never knew. I think one key is to find that thing/subject that truly interests you, that you can be ‘passionate’ about (as the current thinking goes) and you will be self-motivating. I am especially finding that to be true now. If I’m interested in it, I’ll work super hard to learn it, if not, I soon lose interest in it and move on to other things. Maybe one of our challenges is to observe and help the child identify where their passion lies and help them see how they can get better and better in that area, and encourage them in it.
    I also like your idea of them delving deeper and maybe finding something that interests them greatly! Good thinking on your part! I’m certain you are doing good things along these lines for your kids. Plus you are all the time introducing new ideas and activities. That helps, since if they’ve never done something, how can they know whether or not they will like it! Great post!

    • Meme, Definitely you were interested. A bit hokey perhaps when viewed from a kid’s perspective, bu then that’s being a parent, isn’t it? Oh, and who doesn’t make mistakes? Haha. Never fear, I make the Beans go back and correct missed questions on tests too. So I may have hated it, but I’m running right along that program, teehee. We’ll definitely be focusing on things we enjoy and trying new things to find new things to enjoy, but also on understanding why we have tod o the things we don’t enjoy to be able to do the others better… ;).

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