Thursday, November 14, 2013

So Much to Learn Every Day

We went to our parent-teacher conferences today. There was nothing surprising, thank goodness, because, in a way, chatting with the teacher is like getting on an airplane.  In both cases, it is good to be able to report later that the whole thing was pleasant, and basically uneventful.  We heard nice things about the girls, and each of the teachers said something like "keep up the good work," and we smiled and laughed and shrugged off the praise, but we savored it too, because validation can be fleeting when you're a parent. The girls are still young and new to the whole school racket, so they are still eager to please, but I know, from experience with my older children, that this can change later on, as kids get tired and bored and more pressured by life beyond school. So I don't take the good stuff lightly, but I try not to make too much of it either. 

The day got me thinking though, about what I really want the girls to learn.  Reading and math skills are essential of course, but certainly they are not all there is to learn. I have recently read this study , this book,  and a few follow up articles, that talk about what traits seem to predict success for individuals.  Intelligence is a factor, sure, but once you get a bunch of intelligent people together, like at med school, or NASA or whatever, there are still some who will do better than others.  Those people apparently have something called "grit," which actually sounds like something kids get immunized against, not something we want them to have.  But listen, grit is "perseverance and passion for long term goals," which translates to something like resilience-- the ability to bounce back from setbacks, or being able to handle failure and keep going.

One thing I know for sure: bad stuff happens.  Small bad stuff and big bad stuff.  As parents we can prevent some of it.  That's why we teach kids to wash their hands, look both ways when they cross the street, and scream bloody murder if a stranger approaches and asks if they want to check out a puppy inside a creepy-looking van.  That's why we buy car seats and medicine in bottles with caps we can't even open, especially when the kids and everything else give us a freaking headache.  But what about the other things, like feeling left out on the playground, or not getting a part in the school play, or throwing the pitch that turns into the other team's home run?  This "grit" I'm talking about is the ability to deal with crap like this that kids go through every day, stuff we can't protect them from unless we become those weird stalker parents who seem to haunt their children's lives, running around fixing things for them all the time.  

The best thing we can do, apparently, is the hardest thing for many of us: we have to let our kids be disappointed and frustrated and we have to let them know that they can get over it and-- even more difficult, because sometimes it is hard to know that ourselves--  help them develop strategies to cope. It's like a workout for the character. The more they exercise those coping mechanisms, sometimes as simple as learning to wait to take turns or work now to have a reward later, the better they get.   (Hey, that kinda makes parents into personal trainers, and doesn't that sound better than being a stalker?)

And it turns out that there is a better way to "coach" this stuff too.  This article, and another more recent one (now you know why I can't get my writing done, I'm too busy reading) recount studies that show that simply telling kids they're smart or that they are good at something is not the best thing we can do.  Who knew? (Also, I will follow up and find out if telling kids they are adorable lovey sugarpies is still okay.  I haven't read a study on that.) Instead, we should praise our kids' effort and determination, because that will help them learn that, even if they fall short in something, they can keep trying for better results.  Apparently, kids who are just told that they're smart or just plain awesome tend to give up more easily when faced with frustration or failure. So the smartest person in the room may not be the one who thinks he's the smartest, but the one who thinks she can accomplish something if she sets her mind to it.

And that comes around to what I really want for the girls.  Smart is good, but it isn't everything.  The new core standards around here are reading, writing, and resilience-- and math and science too, because you never know when you'll need that stuff at med school, or NASA.  

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