Tag Archives: Parenting Without Borders

Do Kids Move Back in with Parents Because They’re Trained to be Helpless: Parenting Without Borders, Part 10

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.”In Part 7 and Part 8, we explored what education is like in East Asia and Finland. In Part 9, we looked at cultural notions of kindness in raising kids. In Part 10, we’ll explore the possibility that parenting might be fostering a sense of helplessness in children today.

Yes, the title of this post is a tad clickbait-y, but after reading the final chapter in Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders, I can’t help but think that the reams of university students who’ve landed in their parents’ basements upon receiving their diplomas has something to do with the way they’ve been reared. Of course, there are many other factors at play (including things like the economy and recessions, etc.), but I don’t think that this ideas is too fantastical.

Remember the anecdote from Part 9: “In 1970, the primary goal stated by most college freshmen was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005, it was to become comfortably rich.” Well, there’s also a big difference in the way that kids are treated at home (even within a given country).

In 1950, an eleven-year-old growing up in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn was responsible for waking up on time, making his own breakfast, and getting himself out the door. […] He also did the family shopping: going to a corner grocer to buy bread or rolls, or to pick up milk.

Contrast that with today’s America:

“I pretty much do all the chores in the house,” [says a mother of three pre-teens aged nine, eleven, and twelve].

According to the author of The Anthropology of Childhood, it’s “absolutely universal” for children to want to help adults in their communities. We think that sheltering kids from work will help them succeed in all those extracurriculars and allow them more time to complete all that homework. The issue here is that while kids want to help, we’re unintentionally squashing that motivation.

When we ignore our children’s eagerness to participate when they are younger, they internalize the idea that contributing is unimportant and they are helpless. They also begin to expect that things will be done for them.

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who’s read the work of pediatrician Dr. Spock:

Chores, even if not perfectly done, help children gain good self-esteem and make them feel like they are contributing to the family.

And isn’t that what most people want for their kids, anyways? A well-developed sense of self-esteem and a healthy desire to contribute to the world around them? Simply asking children to do chores isn’t enough — it needs to be part of our expectations (or boundaries?). They key here is not necessarily that kids are learning how to contribute to the home, but that they’re learning to feel responsible for themselves. This fosters a sense of self-reliance, so that when they’re older, they know that they’ll be able to figure things out and maybe more importantly, that they’re responsible for figuring things out for themselves.

To illustrate the contrast in cultures, Gross-Loh shares a stunning example of a five-year-old in Japan [Emphasis Added]:

[They] prepare an entire meal for their parents at school and had them do everything by themselves, from paring the potatoes to cutting the meat and carrots for the stew with chef’s knives. Because the social expectation in Japan was that children were capable of acting responsibly and doing chores, the kids had daily practice in helping out at school. Our kids were getting clear and frequent messages about how highly and valued it was to be helpful, self-reliant, and responsible from just about everyone — teachers, friends’ parents, and even from their own friends.

How many parents in North America do you think would let their five-year-olds use a paring knife, much less a chef’s knife? Another poignant quote from the chapter: “When people talk only about what they’re protecting their kids from, they’re not thinking about what they’re depriving them of.” If we don’t give our little ones the chance to fail, how will they learn to succeed?

Brief related tangent — I came across a delightful article recently where a father’s daily question to his kids was, “What did you fail at today?” The idea behind it being that failure is a necessary part of growth.

~

Building on some of the points on autonomy and self-reliance in this chapter, Gross-Loh also explained the way we ask our children to do things matters. Think about how you like to be asked to do something. If someone is off-handedly demanding your attention while you (and they) are engaged in other tasks, are you interested in complying? Probably not. Now imagine you’re a 5-year old. Do you think you’d be more or less likely to comply?

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Building Society on a Foundation of Kindness: Parenting Without Borders, Part 9

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.” In Part 7 and Part 8, we explored what education is like in East Asia and Finland. In Part 9, we’ll look at cultural notions about rearing our children to be kind.

If you’ve been following this series, no doubt there may have been some things that have made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. And if that hasn’t been the case up to this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if this chapter is the one that finally does it.

One of the first anecdotes, while it shouldn’t be, is still a bit shocking [Emphasis Added]: “In 1970, the primary goal stated by most college freshmen was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005, it was to become comfortably rich.” It’s no wonder that the way we treat each other in today’s society may seem a bit different than the way we treated each other 50 years ago (“-isms” like racism and sexism aside, of course). As a quick aside — how different would society look like today if the goal of 90% of university students was to develop a meaningful life philosophy, rather than to get rich?

Near the beginning of this chapter, Gross-Loh recounts how some of the parents she knows are emphasizing (possibly unintentionally), individuality over community awareness. What does that mean? Well, for example, she retells the story of a mother of a three-year-old rushing to comfort her son after her son had thrown a wooden toy and hit Gross-Loh’s son in the head. The idea behind this is that the other parent was trying to get her son to understand the feelings he felt that precipitated the chucking of the wooden toy at the other kid.

Allowing children to behave as they want to until they feel like acting differently actually makes our kids more miserable and less compassionate. Children who have too few boundaries often flail around for a solid surface to ground them.

Consequently, it’s up to us — as parents — to set these boundaries and more importantly, enforce them. Building on this idea of boundaries…

Believe it or not, research shows that children are born with a sense of kindness, but that’s not enough. If this sense of kindness isn’t fostered and reinforced by parents, it can be “overwritten.” Similarly, research has shown that kids are happier when they’re giving something to someone else than when they receive it. That shouldn’t be too surprising (spending your bonus on your coworker will make you happier than spending it on yourself!). An important aspect of this is incentives. If we reward kids for sharing through incentives, we may unintentionally dissuade them from developing a sense of internalizing the virtue of sharing (thereby dissociating sharing from its innate spontaneity and instead, teaching our children to expect an external reward whenever they share).

Two more things I wanted to highlight from this chapter —

Parents who teach their children to speak with authenticity and honesty but do not simultaneously teach them the art of being considerate send their children the message that it is always better to be honest to your true self even if it means hurting someone.

And finally, a difference in orientation in American and Japanese cultures:

While American mothers often orient their babies to things apart from themselves, such as objects, Japanese mothers more often orient their babies to themselves, encouraging a constant awareness of relationships and the impact of one’s actions on other people.

[…]

In disagreements that warrant adult intervention, kids are asked what they think the other person felt that motivated him.

Can you imagine how different American society would be, if every kid is taught the value and importance of considering the underlying motivations of the actions of their friends and other people?

Children are Finland’s Most Precious Resource: Parenting Without Borders, Part 8

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own.In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.” In Part 7,  we explored what education is like in East Asia and in Part 8, we’ll look at education in Finland.

There are many fascinating aspects to education in Finland, especially because they’re so counter to many of the ways we understand education in North America (and East Asia, given the last post in this series, for that matter). Here’s the underlying ideal that guides Finnish education [Emphasis Added]:

Children learn best when they are motivated and when they’re given tools to make responsible and effective choices. Teachers and other adults strive to help kids reach their potential by connecting with them, respecting them, and creating optimal conditions for learning. In Finland, children are regarded as the nation’s most precious resource.

In reading the first part of the quote, it might seem strange that other adults also strive to help kids learn, but as the quote closes, it makes sense. If children are the most important aspect to a country, of course all adults would make strive to foster the development of children.

If you’ve ever come across one of those articles that ranks the education systems of different countries, you should be quite familiar with some of the unorthodox methods used in the Finnish education system. For instance: children don’t begin “academic” education until they’re seven years old; every hour is split into 45 minutes for ‘education’ and 15 minutes for recess (even into high school!); Finnish children spend approximately 300 hours (or ~6 weeks) fewer in elementary school than their counterparts in the USA; and they often have no homework. Oh, don’t forget that there aren’t any specialized programs for gifted children, there aren’t private schools, and there aren’t any high-stakes standardized tests (like the gaokao).

When put in that context, it seems extraordinary that Finns consistently are at the top of global rankings in education. It’s not surprising then, that Gross-Loh dedicated an entire chapter to exploring some of the underlying reasons why this might be the case. She found three “secrets”:

  1. Cultivating High-Quality Teaching
  2. A Variety of Classes Enhance Creativity
  3. The Importance of Setting Up Every Kid for Success

Let’s start with the first one — high-quality teaching. Right off the bat, it’s not easy to become a teacher in Finland. Since the 1970s, all teachers were required to have a Master’s degree. Since the 1970s! If we try and equate that to today’s society, that would be like requiring a PhD. Can you imagine if every teacher in the US had to obtain a PhD before being able to teach (even primary school students!)?

If that analogy isn’t enough, how about this one: “Teachers in Finland are as highly respected as medical doctors in the United States.”

Naturally, it follows that Finland invests quite a bit in their teachers — $30 million a year on professional development. Teachers are continually renewing themselves, which kind of reminds me of the self-cultivation piece of East Asian education.

In the second “secret,” there were two pieces that I found particularly important — Finns want their children to be good at learning how to learn and the emphasis on creative study. In high schools, all Finns must take: Finnish, Swedish, English, math, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, history, social studies, handcrafts, arts, home economics, music, and sports. Not only are Finns educated in science (and foreign languages — sheesh, three languages!?), but there is time and emphasis placed on creative subjects. These topics are emphasized just as much as the sciences because, “teachers believe that creative study transfers to a child’s performance in all subjects.”

The opening sentence from the last ‘secret’: “We can’t afford to waste a brain.” Further to that, in Finland, ‘school readiness’ means that the school is ready to receive and meet the needs of the children (rather than the kids needing to be “ready for school”).

The Finnish way of setting up kids for success means trusting them with many responsibilities even in primary school, so they feel a sense of ownership over their own lives and their education.

An excellent example of this, Gross-Loh has a conversation with a student in Grade 5 who is well-versed in matters of the school budget! If I think back to when I was in Grade 5, I don’t even think I knew what a “budget” was, much less that my school had one, and that I could know about its inner workings.

Two last things I wanted to mention —

Near the end of the chapter, there’s a quote that reminded of an image I’ve seen floating around social media: “Instead of emphasizing global competitiveness, or high individual achievement, the concept guiding almost every educational reform and decision [in Finland] has been equity.”

And finally, in case you want to dismiss the achievements in Finland as being impossible to port to the USA, consider that Finland has the same population as the state of Minnesota.

Confucianism and the Drive for Self-Cultivation: Parenting Without Borders, Part 7

[Note: This series started two years ago! I had hoped to finish it last summer, but packing/moving made that a bit more complicated than I thought. I finally finished reading this book this past weekend, so I’m confident that the last several posts in this series will be published in the coming weeks. Thanks for sticking around!]

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we examined the importance of unstructured “play.” In Part 7, we’ll explore what education is like in East Asia.

Early on in this chapter, Gross-Loh explained that Confucianism has a big influence in China and South Korea. In particular, learning isn’t seen as a means to an end, necessarily. Rather, learning is a way to better one’s self through self-cultivation. While my understanding might be somewhat limited to my experience, I don’t know that I’ve met many people through my extensive education in North America where the goal was self-cultivation and not a means to an end (i.e. get the degree and get out). That’s not to say that that’s necessarily a bad way of looking at education, but just to highlight possible differences.

There’s one passage that emphasizes this ideal of self-cultivation. Gross-Loh is visiting an elite boarding school in China. As her trip is wrapping up, she was meeting with some of the people at the school:

On our last day in China, I met with Gao Chen, head of the entire school, with two teachers and interpreters. After our conversation, something happened that really surprised me. Gao Chen asked my advice, my thoughts, on learning, on how to raise children to become successful in life. The moment I began to cobble together a hesitant answer, every person in the room bent her head down to the table and began writing down every word I said. No one, not even the illustrious head of one of the most elite schools in China, was going to let a potential opportunity for learning and self-improvement pass by.

Even these experts in education, at a well-regarded institution, thought that they could still learn something from their humble guests. How wonderful!

Earlier on in the chapter, we learn the importance that East Asian cultures place on learning “skills.” For instance, in the school discussed above, every student must be skilled in Chinese, math, and science. This ideal is shared amongst East Asian cultures, too. The quote that hammers home this idea of the importance of skills:

No one thinks it’s interesting if a calligrapher breaks rules of calligraphy that he has not totally, and utterly, mastered. Once he has mastered the rules, that’s when thinking outside the box is interesting.

There’s certainly merit to that. Sometimes, it takes knowing a topic inside and out before you’re able to see it from a different angle and appreciate that different angle.

As the chapter comes to a close, there’s a discussion about the level of children’s responsibility through adolescence. In North America, children feel a decreasing sense of obligation to “hang out with their family,” whereas in East Asia, this doesn’t happen. In thinking about the two different cultures, there appears to be a logical reason.

North America tends to be “individualistic” and so it’s natural that as children make their way through adolescence, they would stretch the boundaries of the individualistic culture. Similarly, East Asian cultures tend to be “collectivistic,” so you’d expect that there’d be a strong sense of family and community that continues as children mature.

The key difference in the research shows that this hands-off approach in North America might not be what’s best for children still trying to internalize goals and expectations:

Research on American adolescents’ drug and alcohol use shows that teens who are emotionally close to their parents and know they disapprove of substance use are more likely to abstain.

The researcher quoted goes on to note that there’s a dearth of research on what happens to children after early adolescence who’ve had a closer connection with their family.

“I think we could use a little Chinese parenting, and they could use a little American,” she said with a laugh.

Overscheduling Kids Negatively Affects Development: Parenting Without Borders, Part 6

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we talked about the virtues of allowing our little ones the space to work through problems on their own. In Part 6, we’ll look at the importance of unstructured “play.”

There’s an epidemic of overscheduling kids in the US and it’s negatively affecting development. You’ve probably heard or seen the stereotype: afterschool, little Johnny is off to baseball practice on Mondays, piano practice on Tuesdays, swimming on Wednesday, every other Thursday is Boy Scouts, and on Friday, the family goes to the cottage (when there aren’t piano recitals, baseball games, or swimming tests on the weekends). Oh, there’s also little Julie who has all of her extracurricular activities afterschool, too. Don’t get me wrong, certainly those activities will be helpful in little Johnny or little Julia’s development (within those activities), but they will be harmful in other ways.

All of the activities I mentioned above are structured activities. Meaning, there are clear and set boundaries and defined outcomes contained within. Kids will certainly learn from these kinds of activities, but they are being robbed of the importance and value of unstructured play. From the book:

One survey found that 79% of middle and high school students participate in some sort of activities during the weekdays or on the weekends; 57% have an extracurricular activity every day or almost every day. As scheduled activities have increased, the amount of outdoor time children enjoy has plummeted. Today, the average American child is spending only between four and seven [!] minutes in unstructured outdoor play.

It looks like it’s implied in the passage that this is daily play (but it doesn’t specify). Four to seven minutes — are you kidding me? That’s the amount of time we’re supposed to be spending brushing our teeth everyday (three times a day, at least two minutes each). How the heck is an imagination supposed to develop in only 5 minutes a day?

Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you about that yet, did I:

Childhood play is how kids construct meaning and make sense of the world when they are little, and discover what they love as they grow. Play is a springboard for creativity: as kids pretend and make up their own games, they create possibilities out of thin air. Pretend play is an especially crucial way to hone human intelligence because of how it enables kids to envision possibilities.

So I say again, how is an imagination supposed to keenly develop in 5 minutes a day?

In this chapter, Gross-Loh also tries to draw connections to the rise in childhood obesity and increase in the use of antidepressants in American children. While those points are valid, I think the previous point — development of creativity — is a strong enough argument for more unstructured play all on its own. I mean, some parents often lament the shrinking amount of time spent on arts and physical education in schools. It turns out, children’s access to “arts” is probably getting a similar treatment (by having been overscheduled and given little time to develop their imagination).

~

It turns out that part of the shift to structured activities began in the ’80s and ’90s when the media alerted us to new research in brain development. However, as is often the case when it comes to the media reporting on scientific research, there was a disconnect between what the research actually said and what was expressed in the news. The message from the research was mainly geared to “disadvantaged children” (about the importance of those earlier years) and then the message became co-opted such that all parents thought it was important to focus on those early years. As it happens, this may be to the detriment of children:

Researchers found that early-learning centers, which promise to give infants, toddlers, and preschoolers an academic head start, produced children who eventually had more difficulty: anxiety about tests, lowered creativity, and less of a liking for academics. Many studies show that “artificial stimulation” — early learning that is developmentally inappropriate — can be counterproductive and even hinder children’s development. One well-known study showed that the more babies watched educational baby videos, the more their vocabulary dropped.

There are also myriad behavioural issues that can develop by trying to force this early learning on kids (and we wonder why there’s been an explosion in the diagnosis of kids with ADD or ADHD?). There’s probably a number of reasons for the higher frequency in that diagnosis, but I suspect that the pressures felt by parents to force their kids into environments that will foster behavioural issues is a factor.

I’m already close to 1000 words and I haven’t even talked about how the effects that overscheduling has on a child’s ability to figure out what they’re passionate about (how can you figure out with you like when you’re always being shuttled from activity to activity?) or how it’s important to intersperse physical activity with learning (breaks are essential to improving a person’s attention).

~

One of the main reasons that I chose to write about this book through a series was to make sure that I presented different perspectives, so I wanted to make sure that I offer a few examples of that before closing this post.

In Denmark, there’s a forest kindergarten for students between the ages of three and six. Gross-Loh shared a delightful anecdote about the kids wanting to go swimming in the sea (in the winter) and how the teacher didn’t tell them about how the water was frozen. Instead, the class all walked to the sea to learn that in the winter, the water is frozen and that when you break the ice and go in the water (yes, some of the kids put their feet/legs in), the water is extremely cold. A perfect quote from that story: “There is no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.”

In Germany, they also have a forest school where it’s not only normal, but it’s encouraged for kids of different ages to be playing together (just like we learned in Japan in previous chapters).

And let’s leave the last word to Gross-Loh:

The children spend “off task” — time that might seem idle and wasted — is often full of interior richness. Children are doing exactly what they should be doing. The benefits of play seem, to me, to be as crucial for our kids’ futures as anything we enroll them in, because through play, they internalize a valuable lifelong attitude: the idea that they have the power to make something of their own lives, and that they can create so much out of so little.

The Tyranny of Saying, “Be Careful”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 5

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we looked at how saying “good job” to our little ones might not have the effect we think it does. In Part 5, we’ll look at hoverparenting and self-control.

I suspect that if you’ve read any of the previous posts in this series (and are a parent), you probably took issue with some of the things espoused and if by some miracle you didn’t, I’d be very surprised if at the end of today’s post, you haven’t taken issue with something.

Hoverparenting is everywhere. Heck, you don’t need to take it from me — there was a whole book on the subject written a couple of years ago: “The Overparenting Epidemic: Why Helicopter Parenting Is Bad for Your Kids . . . and Dangerous for You, Too!” I’m not going to get into any of the details in that book (truth be told, I haven’t read it), but I suspect that the idea of hoverparenting isn’t foreign to you and you’ve probably heard, to some degree, how it isn’t good. Here’s Gross-Loh:

If we take over tasks our children could be doing, even if they are kind of stressful or a challenge, when we are over-involved and do not allow a child his own autonomy, we can make a child anxious by giving him the message that he isn’t capable of doing things himself. We orient our children to ourselves, instead of to their own growth and accomplishments.

That last sentence is key — we orient children to us, rather than themselves.

I’ve mentioned before how great it is that this book sheds light on other culture’s perspectives on a given topic, but this one is particularly interesting. For instance, did you know that in Japan, it’s normal for kids to hit each other? Well, I might be stretching the usage of the word normal, but:

In Japenese yochiens, skirmishes between children weren’t nipped in the bud by adults; rather, kindergarten was regarded as a time — the time — in life for kids to experiment socially in a fully engaged, unhindered way; not only to play but also to fight and to cry.

[…]

Teachers didn’t see aggression as a sign of aberrant behavior or the mark of a “problem child” who would grow into a violent adult, but something normal that arose in childhood and would naturally fade when it had been allowed to run its course.

Whoa. Can you imagine the vitriol that would be directed at you, as a parent, if you took your kid to the playground and allowed your kid to hit the other kids?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s so much merit to this idea. Of course it makes sense that kids are still trying to learn about how to relate to the natural world around them and if they don’t have the language to express themselves, physical aggression (rather than verbal aggression) might be a strategy that is put into place.

Circling back to the “Japanese way,” it seems that there’s more to it than simply a parenting strategy of letting the aggression run its course. There’s the idea that kids are still tied to the spiritual world and are too young for discipline. Parents don’t want to push their way into their children’s experiences of joy, either.

You might be wondering about how Japanese kids turn out to be when parented in this manner. Well:

One study compared American and Japanese 4th and 5th graders and their thoughts on hitting, fighting, talking badly about someone, or spreading rumors. 92% of the American children talked about not wanting to get caught, or not wanting to get in trouble with a teacher or parent. 90% of Japanese children, on the other hand, did not talk about the punishment or getting in trouble. They said they shouldn’t misbehave because it would hurt a friend’s feelings, it would be wrong, it would hurt they group.

Whoa. I gotta be honest — when I first read through this chapter, I had to check myself a number of times because of how unexpected some of the results were. So, as parents, what can we do? How can we help our little ones turn out like the Japanese 4th and 5th graders?

The most important principle was that teachers should be constantly attentive and aware of what’s going on, but hold themselves back from getting involved too soon. If they see trouble brewing — two kids who were starting to fight with each other — they try not to react immediately. You had to give them that moment and sit on your own discomfort or desire to rescue the child from the situation.

[…]

Being too involved deprives the kids of experiencing the good feelings that come only from mastering the situation on their own.

And that’s it, in a nutshell, isn’t it? If we think about the juxtaposition of the two culture’s parenting styles, the hoverparenting found in America doesn’t allow kids the chance to master new situations. Parents are always there trying to direct the learning or direct the play. On the flip side, in Japan, there’s space given to the kids, so that they can figure out how to interact and relate to the world around them.

Another great example of this — how many times do you hear parents say, “Be careful,” or “slow down.” Sure, parents have their kids’ safety at heart, but how can they learn the consequences of their actions, if they never experience the consequences of not being careful or not slowing down (I’m not advocating we let our little ones run into traffic, here). Whenever I hear parents utter these words, I cringe (I also cringe when I hear “Good job“). How does telling a little person, “be careful” help them, unless you’ve had a conversation around the inherent ambiguity of the word “careful.”

A short personal example: this past winter, as the snow began to melt, it rained and a layer of ice formed on the snow at a nearby park. When my son and I went to the park, I knew that there was a 100% chance that he was going to slip and fall on the ice. Instead of me telling him to “be careful” as he strode out onto the ice, I watched and let him slip — a number of times. After letting this happen a little bit, I walked over to him and talked to him about what it was like to walk on the snow versus what it was like to walk on the ice. We talked about having to walk more deliberately on the ice because of the lack of friction between our boots and the ice (yes, I talked about friction!). And wouldn’t you know it, after a few times of doing this, there was a noticeable difference in the way that he walked on the ice versus the snow.

The Tyranny of Saying “Good Job”: Parenting Without Borders, Part 4

In the Introduction, we broached the idea that the way other cultures parent might be more “right” than the way that the culture in North America parents, as discussed in the book Parenting Without Borders. In Part 1, we looked at some of the different cultural thoughts around sleep. There was also that stunning example of how it’s normal for babies in Scandinavia to be found taking a nap on the terrace in the dead of winter! In Part 2, we explored “stuff” and how having more of it might not be best for our children. In Part 3, we looked at how different cultures relate to food in the context of parenting. In Part 4, we’ll take a closer look at self-esteem in the context of parenting.

If you have kids or you’ve been around kids, I feel pretty confident in making the assumption that when your kid (or the kids you happen to be around at the time) do/does something well, you almost reflexively say, “Good job!” Of course, though — why wouldn’t we? We notice someone doing something well and we want to praise that, right? Well, it turns out that this might not be the optimal way of interacting with our little ones:

It turns out that when parents and educators send children the message that their needs and their individual happiness and dreams are more important than other things, like being a compassionate, ethical, hard-working person, it makes them unhappy.

I think that we can all agree that it’s probably a good idea that our children grow up to be compassionate, ethical, and hard-working, right? Not to mention, happy. It appears that somewhere along the way, parents got the idea that the best way to achieve these ends were to focus on a child’s self-esteem by telling him how good they are. As it happens, this may have been a perversion of the initial way of thinking about parenting and self-esteem:

But the earliest proponents of raising self-esteem to ensure children have a successful, productive future actually believed this could be done best through a child-rearing style that employed clear rules and limits. Research backs this up: it is parents who allow children freedom and independence within clearly set guidelines, while treating children with respect and love (as opposed to being top-down dictators) who tend to raise confident adults.

One of the best parts about the book Parenting Without Borders is that it give the reader a flavour of different cultures. And when it comes to this chapter, that’s very helpful. In North America, we’re used to focusing on individual happiness and to instill that in our kids, we often tell them how well they’re doing. This has the effect of kids thinking that they’re great. You might expect a child raised in North America to say, “I’m awesome!” If an American kid were to ask a Japanese kid how to say, “I’m awesome,” in Japanese, the Japanese kid would be dumbfounded, as this isn’t something that a Japanese kid would even think to say. Consider this:

Students reflect frequently, especially after a big event, like the annual sports day, or a field trip, or a class presentation, but also after more ordinary moments. On many class handouts our kids received at school, there was a space to write down, “what I can do better next time; what I’ll try to work harder on next time.” Children are taught the habit of always remaining attentive to how they can improve. (By contrast, children in our country are typically asked to reflect on what they did well.)

There’s even a word for this process of self-reflection in Japanese: hansei. How great that at such a young age, kids are learning how to reflect on their process. It’s almost like taking the scientific method and reappropriating it. Can you imagine how different American culture would be if every kid in America were taught to think about how they could have done better on an assignment rather than being giving the customary, “Good job, let’s go out for ice cream,” speech.

Now, I understand that some parents will balk at the idea of not telling their kid how well they’re doing and that’s not what I’m saying (nor is it what the author is saying). However, it’s important to consider the ramifications of our decisions to praise our kids, especially as it relates to labels that they then have to live up to:

A child who is told he is very smart, will begin to define himself through this label. While this sounds like it would be a good thing, even so-called positive labels can be harmful when they give a child a fixed view of himself, since it is a view he must protect.

[…]

 

What a lot of parents don’t see is what happens when we boost our kids too much. If we let “making kids feel good” be our guiding principle, we are buying short-term goodwill at the expense of their future resilience.

In this way, telling our kids that they are smart isn’t so much a nice thing to do as it is a curse. Telling them how smart they are might handcuff them to this label that they have to continually live up to. Not that we want to handcuff our children to labels, but might it better for them and for others if we handcuff them to labels that have them perpetuate actions of compassion and ethics?

Maybe it’s as Gross-Loh alludes to that telling kids how smart they are has more to do with how we feel. Maybe telling our kids they’re smart has to do with us wanting our kids to like us. Gross-Loh has certainly given us a lot to think about in this chapter, but before I close this post, I wanted to leave you with something else that can be done. That is, instead of telling our kids, “Good job,” what else can we say?

Dweck’s research shows, a good parent doesn’t undermine her child’s motivation through empty praise and encouragement. She scaffolds her child’s ability to face challenges and even accept failure as something that anyone can grow from.

So, instead of focusing on the outcomes and the end goal, maybe it might be better if we focus on the effort and the steps that our children take to get from A to Z.