Off the Wall 26/11/14
As we approach the end of the academic year, pre-schools, primary schools and secondary schools are holding graduation and prize-giving ceremonies. A number of tertiary institutions are following suit, while some lecturers are marking huge batches of exam papers and assignments. Some students are waiting with baited breath to find out their results – some seeking the best grades and some just happy to pass the course or unit.
Parents will be analysing reports and grades and making their own evaluation of teachers, subject combinations, class-based assessments, curricula, school management or perhaps the Ministry of Education itself. And then of course there are our children. The other day I noticed a comment by a friend on social media that his child was disappointed with his position in class. Not everyone can come first, not everyone receives an award, not everyone gets the marks or grade they hoped for – or that their parents hoped for.
I have overheard parents attempting to motivate their children to do well in class; to try and come first or get this mark or that mark for a subject. Living in Korea, I used to wonder at the children who were daily sent by well-meaning parents for extra classes running well into the night to give their children that edge in their academic achievement. Even in primary and intermediate level. Just how much pressure do we put on our children?
I admit that I have been guilty of this myself. Last year when my son, who usually does well in his studies, showed me his marks, I congratulated him and then asked him if he had done his best. He was a little taken aback that I would be critical of his grades. I explained to him my view that I thought he could do better, not merely in terms of grades but in terms of effort. Earlier this year I caught myself telling my children that as “luve ni talatala” (children of a minister) they should be getting good marks in Christian Education at school. Fortunately for me, my children take their spirituality seriously and enjoy religious discussions.
Later, I reflected on my “motivational” speeches. I am sure they had not been as inspiring as I hoped. Was I putting too much pressure on this then 9 year-old class six student? Was I encouraging my eight year old daughter to be competitive for the right reasons?
We live in a competitive society, so it's no surprise that parents feel pressure for their children to excel and compete. Yet the quest for perfection usually fails. Dr. John Duffy, an American clinical psychologist and author of "The Available Parent," advises that "Expectations should be high but reasonable. Many parents seem to expect their children to be perfect, but there is a lot of anxiety, and very little satisfaction, in this set-up."
Dr. Duffy suggests that instead, we need to watch our children closely so we have a realistic view of their potential and strengths. Then, encourage our children to give their very best effort. Duffy says, "Too often, parental expectations are based in achievement as opposed to effort." Try to live life in the moment. Read books, visit museums, and take classes together because you enjoy learning, rather than focusing on grades. Throw a ball around for the joy of it, not because you want to mould the next rugby 7s superstar.
Former president of American Psychological Association and Director of Yale University’s Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, Alan E. Kazdin, suggests that when we enforce unreasonable expectations, and especially when we punish according to them, we put stress on kids, who respond by avoiding, escaping, and becoming irritable. Ironically, that puts them off whatever activity, skill, or virtue we're trying to inculcate, making it aversive rather than attractive. His article on why parents expect far too much from their children, “Why Can't Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?” makes good reading for parents. (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2008/11/why_cant_johnny_jump_tall_buildings.html)
The good news, according to Kazdin, is that you're the world's leading expert on your child, the one person in creation best equipped to find that sweet spot. Just remember, as you go about it, that it's only human for parents to tend to expect that our children can do more than they can really do. Even slight adjustments of your expectations to compensate for that tendency—a little more emphasis on shaping, a little more patience, a little reflection on what's really important to you as a parent and what behaviours can be left to disappear or develop on their own—can produce surprisingly excellent results.
Last year, my daughter announced that she no longer wanted to be a mermaid but a marine biologist. Rather than tell the then class three student to study science and biology, the best thing I felt I could do for her was ensure that she was a strong swimmer so that she could snorkel and find her a book on sea life. My son’s mercurial nature means right now he wants to be many things in the future. The best I can do is to encourage him to explore it all in the hope that a spark is ignited into a flame.
In the end we need to let our children develop their own passion for something and nurture that passion. Where there is passion, success, however one chooses to measure it, will come naturally.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”