Jiu-Jitsu for the Bullied

I homeschooled my boys for years and have always caught flack for it.  However, the one group of people who rarely criticized my decision were other parents with school-aged children.   More often than not, they seemed to feel compelled to offer an apologetic explanation for why they weren’t homeschooling their own kids.  Why?  Because they were well aware that we live in a world where sending your kid to California to learn Jui-Jitsu to defend against bullies actually makes sense, for one.  It’s absurd.  I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have kids in school fully realizes how awful the social situation is at a lot of schools.  Even in schools where the adults aren’t part of the problem, so many kids are so poorly socialized that stopping the bullying feels like mission impossible. 

(It always kills me that “socialization” is seen as a potential problem for homeschooled kids.  Like the barbarians that run the social scene at many middle schools are well socialized human beings!  I’ll take my odd, but genuinely good home-socialized boys over the manipulative, callous and cruel children that are running amok at our local public schools any day.  Heck, my oldest has been trying to convince me to homeschool my daughters precisely so they will not be “socialized” the way the teens he attended school with were.)

I have a few theories as to why bullying has become such an outrageous problem:

1. We don’t let kids work out their own problems when they are young.  Whether they are at home or in daycare, we think it’s normal to jump in right away and mediate every conflict our kids have – particularly if there’s been any hitting involved.  This is not normal!  People get into conflict with each other and have to learn to navigate.  By jumping in right away, we deprive our kids of the chance to learn to stand up for themselves, weather having someone unhappy with us, learn not to take mean people personally and a whole host of other lessons that need to be learned in order to figure out how to get along with people.  I watched a documentary once about socialization of young children in Japan.  The teachers almost never stepped in to mediate conflicts between children – even when hitting was involved.  What happened was what happens in the most of the rest of life: kids stuck up for each other and offered comfort and distraction to each other when feelings were hurt.  persistently aggressive kids were avoided until or unless they learned to treat others properly.  We need to trust our kids to figure out how to manage their conflicts while they are little rather than waiting until they are older and can do real damage to each other.

2. We model a very selfish, demanding attitude for our kids.  We drive around screaming at other drivers for being in our way.  We complain about waiting in lines or servers who make mistakes as if it were the most outrageous thing in the world that we should ever have to deal with anything we don’t like.  We shouldn’t be surprised when our kids treat people to their face with the sort of callous, ungracious attitudes that we have been showing them their  whole lives.

3. We don’t show proper empathy towards our kids when they are the ones who are hurt or need attention.  Especially if they have done something they don’t like, we feel entitled to be as critical and harsh as we like.  If we hurt their feelings in the process we don’t offer any comfort – we just tell them they have brought it on themselves.  I’ve become convinced that many parents and caregivers (obviously not all!) are way too hard on their kids.  We practically follow them around correcting their every move.  We tell them not to touch walls as they walk by, apologize to strangers and scold our kids for not being aware of someone wanting to go by in a shopping cart when we’re in the store.  If we ever hear them utter a sharp word or even a curse under their breath we jump all over them.  If we follow our kids around, correcting ever little mistake and imperfection, they may well display a similarly critical attitude and lack of grace to other children.

4. We are judgmental and condemning of the people we see on TV, in the news, at the local store, our own families, etc.  Too many people are in the habit of pointing out the flaws, errors and even simple poor taste of the people around us.  Many times we do it because we think we are instructing our children in the standards we expect from them.  However, more likely we are teaching them to criticize and condemn people for everything from the way they dress to the way they talk to the choices they make that we don’t approve of.  In a school  setting, this is called bullying.

If we want our kids to be kind, gracious and caring people, we really do need to model that behavior for them.  And we need to give them more breathing room so they can self-correct, manage their own conflicts and feel OK about just being a normal, imperfect kid.  Then maybe we won’t need to give kids Jui-Jitsu lessons just so they can attend 6th grade without having a nervous breakdown.

My husband can’t afford me!

I did a little research about the going rate for the services I provide for a family our size in the area I live in and I also looked at Denver Concierge’s affordable maid service to have a comparison.  So, here’s my version of one of those “how much does it cost to replace a stay-at-home-mom?” lists that comes out every year around Mother’s Day:

Full time, live in nanny: $600/week for up to 50 hours.  $18/hr for additional hours or weekends
Personal cook: $250/week
Housekeeping – 18 hours/week: $300/week
Laundry service – 25 loads/week: $100/week
Lifecoach/therapist services for children – approx 5 hrs/week: $350/week
Personal Assistant approx 8 hours/week: $100/week
Tutoring – approx 4 hours/week: $100/week
Cost to hire people to replace mom: $1800/week or $243,600/year.   Of course, if I were making almost $250K a year, I might feel obliged to cut back on the time I spend on the internet.  I might even be prodded into giving a rip about the Bush tax cuts expiring!  But I don’t get paid that way.  But I’d still say that I’m a bargain! And if I, or any other mom, wanted a new washer and dryer for Mother’s Day (hint, hint), it would be a wise decision to make that purchase without flilnching, don’t ya think?
(And for the record – all respect to the working mom.  I don’t know how you do it all!)

The best parenting advice I’ve heard all year!

Today I was reading through a fairly fluffy article offering advice to parents of teens.  (Because with two teens in the house and a whole lot of future teens coming down the pipeline I need all the help I can get!)   In the middle of this fluffy little article, I found the best parenting advice I’ve read all year.   In the for-parents-of-teens version it goes:

If your teen breaks curfew and you meet her at the door ranting, what do you think she’s going to focus on—the fact that she’s late or that you’re screaming like a lunatic?

I read that and a lightbulb went off in my head.  Although the context is for dealing with teens, I think that this is great guidance for all parents.  If your child does something wrong and the way you correct them makes a bigger impression on them than the fact that they did something wrong, you have failed.  We’d all like to think that when we flip out at our kids they will think to themselves, “gosh, when I drew with crayon all over the wall Mom wailed and cried and threw my crayons on the floor and stomped on them until I cried.  I guess I better not draw on the wall again.”  But the reality is that when we are done flipping out our child will sit and think, “Mommy was really scary and hurt my feelings.”  Not being the most thoughtful, logical creatures in the world (perhaps something they inherented from parents who flip out over childish misdeeds?) kids tend to miss the cause-effect message when they are busy being upset/scared/mad/etc over how they have been treated.  Personally, I have vivid memories of times my parents lost it and virtually no memory of what I may have done to provoke such a reaction. 

So, when you are tempted to flip out or even just respond with harsh words or punishments in reaction to your child’s misdeed, stop and think for a minute.  Isn’t your goal to teach proper behavior?  If so, you may well get better results by toning it down and making sure the message doesn’t get lost in delivery.

All Praise the Kids?

Interesting story in the NY Magazine this weekend about how praising kids harms and sometimes helps them.  Much of the research about praise isn’t new to those of us to pay attention to such things, but for many people the reality of how praise can help and harm kids runs counter to what we’ve been taught to believe.

The first thing that researchers have discovered is that when we praise kids insincerely (ie giving everyone a medal for participation rather than for achievement), we lose a lot of credibility.  The kids know they haven’t done anything special and view all praise as suspect.  Which actually makes even genuine praise far less effective.  Often kids will decide that the only messages which can be trusted are those which are critical.  Which (as some of us have learned the hard way) can be a problem because not all criticism is accurate and often kids haven’t been taught how to deal productively with criticism anyway.   So you get a kid who discounts anything good which is said to them while whole heartedly believing any negative message that comes their way.  Not exactly what we want.

The other major finding is that praising a child for some sort of innate ability decreases motivation, self-confidence and performance.  The reason is that if something is an innate ability, it comes naturally and with little effort.  If this is the case, then putting forth effort is a sign that one is lacking in innate ability.  Then when the child fails (due to lack of effort, of course) the message that is seen as a sign that the child lacks the innate ability to do something, so no effort will fix it anyways.  When this cycle is in place even extraordinarily bright children become risk-adverse, under-perform and lacking in confidence.

There are three keys to making praise work.  First, it must be sincere.  Sometimes this is really easy like when your kid wins a prize.  But other times, you need to look more closely for those things your child does which are valuable, but aren’t usually given a lot of attention.  For example, if you take your child to the store and they hold the door open for people, say please and thank you, look people in the eye when they are spoken too, etc they can be praised for being polite and considerate.  On the other hand, if your 12 year old brings you a drawing that isn’t very good and asks what you think of it, you need to resist the urge to say, “wow – that’s a great drawing honey!”  Instead, just talk with them about the picture: “why did you choose those colors?  What’s happening in this scene?  What made you think of this?”  Often, a kid will value the chance to have their work taken seriously enough to be discussed that they will walk away satisfied and motivated to keep working on their artwork.  But, if they insist on a judgement – good or bad? – be honest without being discouraging.  Something like, “I don’t think you’re ready to find a buyer for your art yet, but you have a good eye for color (or character or whatever) and I bet that if you apply yourself you will keep getting better.  You may surprise yourself with what you can do!”  Which actually leads us to the second point . . .

Praise should focus on effort and potential rather than innate ability.  A child who is told “you’re smart/talented/likable/etc” without having put an effort into developing those skills will fall into the trap described above and not have real confidence in your praise or themselves.  If your child brings home a good grade, instead of saying, “look how smart you are!”, they need to hear something like, ” it looks like all that hard work paid off.  Good job.”  I do believe that simply as a matter of self knowledge a child who has a particular talent or ability should be told that they have that ability.  A smart kid should know that he is smarter than normal.  A talented musician should know that they have an unusual aptitude.  And so on.  However, being smart or talented or pretty or whatever should not be introduced as a form of praise.  A smart kid is no better than a kid who struggles to learn basic math.  A pretty child has no more worth than an awkward child with unattractive features, etc.  These are not things to praise a kid for, imo.  Instead, they should be introduced as a form of self-knowledge and a way to encourage a child to apply themselves.  In our house, a kid is never told that they are smart without it being connected to the fact that this creates an opportunity for their efforts to bear more fruit than most people have a chance to achieve in some areas.  The ability isn’t praised – the effort and discipline needed for the ability to be worth anything is always the object of praise.  Innate ability is neither earned or within our control.  But effort and strong character are.  Praise directed at that which takes effort rather than that which is not earned or controlled is encouraging and rewarding.  In order to do this sort of praise effectively, we must look at the third facet of effective praise . . .

Praise needs to be specific.  Many couple has been frustrated because the husband tells his wife “your beautiful” – perhaps with regularity – and yet the wife neither feels beautiful nor seems to believe the sincerity of the compliment.  The wife may even completely befuddle her husband by claiming that he never compliments her!  The problem is that “you’re beautiful” is a very broad, generic statement.  It is one of those things which encompasses so much that it means very little.  Instead, if the husband can to substitute compliments like, “Your hair is beautiful today./Those jeans make your butt look great./I love the way your eyes light up when you talk about something you care about./Your skin is so soft./etc”   A husband who became adept at pointing out the specific details of what he finds beautiful about his wife will find that a handful of such compliments will have greater effect than saying “you’re beautiful” a million times.  It’s just human nature.  So if your kid plays soccer, compliment him on his hustling or passing ability or how he communicates with other players on the field rather than just saying, “you’re a great soccer player!”  This creates confidence in the child that your praise is sincere.  It also lets your kid know that you care enough to really pay attention, which means more to a child than any particular word of praise ever could.

Although research has found that the way praise is often done is actually harmful and counter-productive, I think it’s important that parents not decide to just give up on the idea of praise and building their child’s self-confidence altogether.  Our children depend on us to show them who they are and part of this is pointing out the good parts.  And our kids need our approval like they need air to breathe.  If a child doesn’t believe that he has earned his parent’s approval – that they think well of him and see good things in him – then nothing anyone else says to them and nothing they accomplish will mean much.  When a parent withholds praise, perhaps out of fear for breeding arrogance or because the child’s ability’s are not focused in areas the parent values, it can be crippling.  If the world tells a kid that he is brilliant, but his father never does, he will just tell himself that the rest of the world is lying or foolish.  Because if he really was brilliant, his father would have told him as well.  So, let’s keep giving our kids the praise they need and earn.  Let’s just do it the right way!

A childcare guru in Britain comes to his senses

Perhaps some tides are changing. This article about a childcare guru in Great Britain changing his mind in favor of keeping young children in their parent’s care is nice to see. Apparently the fact that babies need loving interaction with the same people who will see them through adulthood and the aggressiveness and behavior problems of those children deprived of such care finally got to him. Good for him!
BTW,Why is it that helping to get both parents into the workforce by relieving them of some of the burden of providing care for their children is seen as a perfectly reasonable thing for government to do? Yet doing anything to make it easier for a parent to stay home with the kids (tax credit for stay at home parents or encouraging more flexible work options that would allow parents to be home while still maintaining employment) are seen as not worth pursuing?
Hat tip to Iain Murray at The Corner on the National Review Online