Christmas is here. The same question arises again every year. What can I offer the little ones? We all want the best for our kids, as to do, why not offer them life-changing gifts?
This article is not about toys but rather about enabling your loved ones to better navigate the life that lies ahead.
So without further due…
1. Stop tagging
We’ve all come across articles explaining how bad negative talk can be. We all know that tagging our kids as lazy, spoiled or any other negative label is not to their best interest. The best form of defense being attack, we tend to think plenty of positive reinforcement plays the trick.
We’ll not really. Research has proven that labeling our kids as being intelligent is not good for them neither!
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During a study, kids were randomly split into 2 groups. Then…
- Step1: They were assigned a task of average complexity to perform. Those who carried it successfully were congratulated. In the first group, kids were told they were “intelligent”. In group 2, they were congratulated for the “effort”.
- Step 2: The successful kids from both groups were asked to perform a more complex task. Kids from group 1 abandoned quicker than in group 2. Not finding the solution wasn’t in line with their self-image of “Smart”. Unfortunately, to them, giving up was a better option than living through the frustration of the exercise. On the contrary, Group 2 kids stayed longer and felt less frustration. Weren’t they “effort” driven after all?
This line of conduct, is confirmed by the work of James Flynn who spent a lifetime working on IQ related matters. One of his famous studies is on why Chinese Americans do better than white Americans. Again, the answer was the focus on the effort that was emphasized since early childhood. It was a cultural thing not linked to any biological advantage.
In turn, Carol Dweck a psychologist from Stanford University confirms through his research that glorifying “intelligence” yields a fixed mindset while focusing on the “effort” develops a growth mindset.
Another study showed that positive reinforcement when not paired with constructive criticism increased self-image in a harmful manner. Under such circumstances, people would authorize themselves bad behaviors under the cover of being the “good guys”.
So you got the point, at times, positive labels are no better than negative ones. A better recipe is the combination of both.
2. Curiosity vs. dogma
Walking in the street, my kid noticed cars parked on the pavement and asked why this is. I was very tempted to tell him bluntly how negatively I felt about this line of conduct. Thankfully, I held back. Instead, I engaged in a conversation.
Me: In your opinion, why are they doing what they do?
Kid: They didn’t find any parking slots?
Me: Look around and tell me whether your observations confirm that explanation.
Kid: They are a few empty places!
Kid: They weren’t willing to make the (little) extra effort to park properly?
Me: I think so. What about you?
Kid: Seems like an obvious reason.
Me: I agree with you, I would just replace “obvious” by “probable”.
Here are advantages of asking questions vs. throwing statements:
- Thinking for our brain = answering questions => in such a process our brain is an active partner vs. a passive receiver.
- Questioning is a dynamic process, statements are static. The same question can yield a different answer. A statement is a statement. It is fixed. Life is not. Or is it? 🙂
Often times, the difference between curiosity and dogma is not in the information itself, but the way it has been conveyed.
Teach your children to be sure about their answers at school and doubtful in life — K
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3. Inner impetus
A good friend told me how much he loved math in his childhood. As it became a mainstream course, grades started to matter. Anyways, he was an “A” student. Then came that bloody exam where he got a D! He hated it, hated the teacher and incidentally math…
What happened is that progressively, external motivation (grades, recognition from peers & teacher…) replaced his internal impetus (the love of math). When the external incentive was redrawn (bad grade), it was a killer. As Steven D. Levitt brilliantly explains in the book Freakonomics:
- An extrinsic incentive should never replace intrinsic motivation.
- Reaction to external incentives is not always predictable and effects are usually hard to impossible to undo.
When our kid comes with a drawing and says “Daddy, how do you like my drawing?”, we’d rather return the question to help reconnect to her/his internal drive. “How do you like it?” is a good question. An even better one would be “How much did you enjoy drawing it?”.
Learn to observe what your kids love to do. Give them the opportunity to do so more frequently. If they like drawing, make sure enough paper is handy at home. This may seem obvious, but it doesn’t go without saying. When your child uses the 5th piece of paper iterating on a drawing, for god’s sake, don’t yell at her/him to stop the waste. You may be right, but please teach them to avoid waste through another activity. That one is too sacred.
4. Daily habits
Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
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The thing is not that your kid should install the right daily habits from early childhood. Rather, they just need to integrate into their minds that, daily habits exist. And the best way to do so is to find an activity they are willing to practice for a few minutes every day. It can be drawing, practicing an instrument, playing soccer with neighbors, learning a language on DuoLingo or reading a few lines before bedtime. Remember, the activity by itself is not the focal point, learning to establish daily habits is what matters most. So:
- Pay attention to what they enjoy doing.
- Tell them, it would be great if they did it daily.
- To lighten up exclude weekends and vacations, it’ll give a sense of freedom.
- Practice yourself a daily habit in front of them to lead by example.
- If absolutely necessary, you can incentivize them. I can hear you say “no way?! You are contradicting yourself! You just said help them stay tuned to their internal impetus!”. You are right, but remember the objective is to install ANY daily habit. So reverting to external incentives may spoil the activity itself but not the teaching that daily habits are key to future success.
I know this seems obvious by still I would like to mention two points:
- One concrete tip on conveying love is by spending quality time. It is advised by psychologists to spend 30 minutes a day with your kids. One important condition that needs to be respected is no interruptions! Hope it is not science fiction to you. ☺
- There is a difference between “loving your child” and “being in love with your child”. In the first case, you are playing your parent’s role. It reinforces self-confidence and self-esteem. In the second, you are sending a subconscious message that your kid can deviate from acceptable behaviors and still have you under her/his spell. Also having a fusional relationship with your child is unhealthy. If a kid is uncontrollable and shows signs of egoistic behaviors, chances are this is where it nests.