First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Building Better Children
Everybody wants the best for their children.
The hard part is to figure out what the "best" is.
Do we want our children to be the best? What does that mean, anyway? Most people would say, "I want my children to be the best they can be." But the best at what?
At whatever they want to be, of course!
OK, so that means what? The best athlete? The best scholar? The best salesman? The best graffiti artist? The best car thief?
"Well, son, what disappoints me is not that you stole a car, but that you weren't very good at it. You got caught. Didn't I raise you to be the best at whatever you do?"
We want them to be the best they can be at things worth doing. So let's suppose we have a list of "things worth doing": How in the world can we know what is the "best" that a particular child can be at those tasks? Until they show us what they can do, by doing their best, how can we know what their best is? And what if they try really hard and don't become good at it? Does that mean they failed? Or that we failed? Or that they simply don't have the native ability to be good at the thing they wanted to do?
The Best Is the Enemy of the Good
Why in the world should we ever, ever ask any child to be the best at anything? Or try to guess when they have done their best? Why is that even our job, as parents?
That's their job -- to decide what they want to do, and then decide when they've done all they can (or want) in order to excel at that task.
For instance, why should someone even aspire to be the best doctor? Why not aspire to be a good doctor? If they aim to be the best, they can never succeed, because even if, miraculously, they are the best in their profession for a brief moment, they will age, and some young whippersnapper will come along and do better.
Best golfer, best runner -- we know what happens to athletic record books. And suppose your kid grows up to set the record for the fastest mile in history, and no one ever surpasses it? As he gets older, he can't reach his own record any more. He was the best, maybe the best ever, but he's not the best now. What's he supposed to do? Keep telling people for the rest of his life how his younger self was once the best? How long before he has no friends, because he can't let go of his bestness?
It's almost worse if your kids slave to be the "best they can be." Because nobody knows what that is. So let's say your kid is a doctor, and he makes a mistake, and somebody dies. Obviously, he should have done better. He should have not made that mistake. All the people he has saved are erased by that one mistake. He's a good doctor, but that's never enough, because he has to be the best he can be, which always means "flawless" -- a standard no one can meet.
Life isn't a competition. You can have a wonderful, happy life without ever being the best at anything. Without ever thinking about being the "best you can be." All you need to do is try to be good.
Good is good enough.
Happiness Is ...
Let's walk away from the whole idea of bestness. We want our children to be happy.
Now we're talking. Though, now that you think about it, that can be just a problematical as "best." The kid who's shooting up heroin is happy during the drug-induced high. Drunks are happy when the alcohol puts them in a daze of contentment. The tobacco addict is happy during that surge of relief as the nicotine goes back into the bloodstream. Surely that's not what we had in mind.
When we say we want our kids to be "happy," we don't mean "feeling pleasure," we mean that we want them to be able to look back on their lives and be content with the choices they've made. We want them to feel like they've accomplished something. Made the world a better place because they're in it.
And how can we be sure to help our kids accomplish that? Very few people make such a splash in their chosen profession that anybody notices or remembers what they, as individuals, have done. If your measure of "accomplishment" consists of being noticed by others, you're doomed to disappointment. Even the biggest stars or athletic heroes have to admit, in their solemn moments, that what they accomplished wasn't that big a deal.
In fact, most of the things that bring the most fame are ultimately pretty trivial. While the accomplishments that really count are known only to a few.
What is the measure of happiness? I suppose everyone has their own idea, but species-wide, the prevailing notion might run something like this:
When your kids reach the age of 50:
1. They're married to somebody they like and trust.
2. They're supporting themselves.
3. Their own kids are growing up decently.
4. Everybody in the family is speaking to each other.
5. They're all good people -- contributing to society and living by the rules.
That's an achievable standard, isn't it? It doesn't look so hard.
Of course, your kids can make horrible choices that put the kibosh on some of these things. But if you teach them what's expected of a good person, and show it in your own life, you can't force them not to make bad choices. That happens, and it's sad, and all you can do then is help them work through the consequences of those choices and try to salvage happiness at the end of the road.
In fact, raising kids who are hardworking, self-supporting, reliable, kindly people who get along with each other is hard enough that I think any parents who achieve it have a right to be perfectly content with the job they did.
Why, then, do so many parents set impossible standards for themselves and their children, guaranteeing that they -- and their children -- will fail, and making everybody miserable in the process?
Making My Kids Athletic
When I was a kid, I was medium lousy at sports. Not truly lousy -- I could hit the ball, I could throw a pass, I could make a basket. I just learned slowly and was never very good at it even with practice.
I always figured that it was because my dad had a bad back and couldn't do athletic stuff. So I didn't grow up playing catch with my father -- not his fault, just the way it was -- and so I didn't develop the skills that would have made me competitive with the other kids.
So when I had a son of my own, I was determined he was not going to lack what I lacked. When he was four years old, there we were, out in the front yard of our house in South Bend, Indiana, throwing a little rubber football back and forth. (I was at Notre Dame. Of course it was a football.)
He loved watching me kick the ball really high. He loved watching a spiral pass. (Yes, I can throw a spiral pass -- with a Nerf ball.) He just didn't want to get under the ball and let it hit him. Which is what happened, a lot -- catching was hard and scary and he didn't like it. And the more I pushed, the less he liked it.
Until he finally explained it to me: "Dad, I don't like playing ball."
And suddenly I realized. It wasn't because my father couldn't play catch with me. After all, I had an older brother. If we had been an athletic family, we would have been playing ball all the time. But he never seemed to do much that was athletic with his friends, let alone with me.
I wasn't so much athletically incompetent as uninterested. I could shoot a basket -- but I didn't care enough to keep shooting and shooting until I could do it reliably. I certainly didn't care enough to push my way through a crowd and get a rebound. And never would I care enough to willingly tackle somebody or be tackled in football. In short, I didn't like the jobs that athletes did -- not enough to keep doing them until I got good at them.
It was a circle, I think: I wasn't good enough at athletics for it to be fun, and because it wasn't fun, I didn't repeat the experience enough to get good at it.
That's what my son inherited from me -- he was an athletic slow learner, and he got no pleasure from it, so why push him to work hard at doing something he didn't even like to do?
We stopped playing catch. Instead we played the sports he loved -- videogames. He's now a professional game designer. I never had to make him practice to get good at that job. He loved it naturally and taught himself to be brilliant at it.
Flash Cards and Junior Einsteins
It's an old joke that children don't come with an instruction manual. And just when you think you have this whole child-rearing thing down pat, along comes child number two and none of the things that worked with child number one are worth anything at all.
But just because raising each child is an adventure in itself does not mean you can't have some idea of reasonable expectations.
I recently read a powerful, useful, truthful book: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, with Diane Eyer.
The authors are scientists and, more to the point, they know how to interpret the results of other scientists' work. In a highly readable and useful format, they lay out the story of how children's brains develop during the early years of childhood.
And here's the big news:
You can't raise your child's IQ or increase any other innate ability.
Nor can you accelerate a child's development by a single day.
When they're ready to learn something, you can't stop them. But until that day, you can't make them do it.
Children are natural learning machines. That's their primary activity from the moment they're born. The latest research (which is what underlies the entire book) shows that children are learning an astonishing amount even before they're born (you know, when they're just fetuses), and that learning explodes when they are born.
But they learn what their brain is ready to learn, at the time it's ready to learn it. They're on a schedule determined by their DNA and other body chemicals and structures, and you can't speed them up, period. Nor should you want to. What they're doing without any direction from you is phenomenal.
Which is not to say that you are not important to them. Here's what you do:
1. Keep them safe. In the process of learning, they do stupid stuff -- and so do the people around them. Your job is to keep them from breaking their necks, choking on toys, strangling in the crib, baking to death in a closed car, getting run over, freezing in the snow, drowning in a rainstorm, and so on. It seems pretty minimal, but in fact it takes a lot of effort and close attention. Our ancestors had to worry about different things -- sabertooth cats, for instance -- but the job was the same. We clothe and shelter them and keep them from damage.
2. Feed them. Malnutrition slows down learning and can cause lasting damage to intellectual development. We provide them with nourishment that allows them to develop normally.
3. Teach them limits and boundaries. This is the part that many parents don't understand. Kids hunger to know where the edges are -- because once they know the boundaries, they can trust that within those boundaries they are safe. It is their circle of trust. Parents who want their kids to be "free" and never set limits on their behavior are doing them no favor -- by implication, they're teaching them that there is nowhere they're safe. Meanwhile, the kids grow up undisciplined and anti-social, until conflict with students and teachers does the job the parents should have done -- teaching the children which behaviors are not acceptable.
4. Play with them.
But even these tasks can be taken to ridiculous excess. Safety is great -- but what good are you as a parent if you never let them fall and protect them from every risk? You'll end up with a turnip, not a child.
Let Them Show You What They Need
You watch their progress carefully, and give them exactly as much freedom as you think they can handle. Just as you only give them food they're ready to process and digest -- no steak, even when they get their first teeth -- so you also set boundaries only when they're old enough to understand them and comply with them.
What's the point of trying to teach a child to share when his mental development doesn't allow the concept to exist? A child who's too young can't conceive of sharing -- it just looks like stealing, even when Mommy and Daddy are doing the taking.
In everything we do, we watch our children intently, to try to discover what it is they've learned -- what they're ready to do. And then we help them do it. Sometimes we try them out on things and watch their reaction to see if they're ready. If they're not, they'll let us know, and we respect that and wait.
How many kids have been put through a traumatic toilet training experience because parents thought it was time long before the child was mentally ready to process the boundaries? You try it, and if the kid responds, great; if not, you wait a while and try it again.
Most parents figure this out instinctively. Basically, it comes down to this: If the child isn't ready, the whole experience is so awful that the parent gives up and waits.
But these days, some parents have gotten the idea that they can mold their children. That the responsibility for the child's "success" is entirely in the parents' hands, and if they don't push their children as hard as they can, their children will "fail."
It's a Competitive World!
It's a tough life, and we have to get our children ready! (That's what a lot of people said to me after I wrote about the evils of homework -- that life is hard, so children should learn to be miserable as young as possible.)
Parents who have the idea in their heads that life is all about competition want their children to be "winners" instead of "losers." And so they try to give their kids "every advantage" so that they'll have a competitive edge over the other children (those feral monsters being created like secret weapons in other people's houses) and will "win."
What a sick view of life in the first place! Perhaps you've had the horrible experience of working with somebody who has that view of life -- someone for whom every activity is a contest with a winner and a bunch of losers. Don't you find such people repulsive and impossible to work with? Don't you get away from them as quickly as possible?
The great secret of civilization is that while we give (way too much) honor and praise to those who "excel," most of the time what we actually do is engage in cooperative action, where we trust other people to do their job competently, and we provide the same service for them.
That's what marriage is all about, isn't it? Each parent doing his and her own job well, so that between them, all the jobs get done. Plenty of room to negotiate about which jobs belong to whom, and what constitutes a job well done -- but the idea is that you're not competing to be the "best parent," you're parenting together.
"But I want to raise my kid to be a leader, not a follower!"
Oh, come on, get a clue, buddy! You don't get to be a leader until you learn how to get people to trust you enough to follow you. And the way you do that is by learning to get along with other people, understand them, learn their needs: cooperate. Effective leaders are people who can build communities, not people who defeat all rivals.
Even in athletics, the most superb athletes work with coaches and teammates in order to try to perfect their game. Nobody wins alone.
It Doesn't Work
Ironically, when parents buy into all the nonsense fads and work their toddlers to death with flash cards, trying to teach them things they're simply not ready to learn, they might think they're giving their children a competitive edge -- but the opposite is true.
When you teach tots to memorize flash cards, you aren't teaching them the concepts. Their brains aren't ready for that. You're teaching them only to give a memorized response to a particular stimulus. The research confirms it. They aren't learning anything.
Worse yet, they aren't enjoying it. Oh, you'll hear parents say, "Junior loves his flash cards." No, folks. Junior simply loves pleasing his parents. He probably hates flash cards -- but it seems to be the only way he can get his parents' favorable attention. So he does it. But he learns nothing.
In fact, the flash cards slow him down, because he actually learns most and develops best when he is playing.
Play's the Thing
By definition, any task assigned by adults is not play. Play is how children learn. To them, their learning activities are fun, and they learn best when they're having a great time. That's how they learn their social skills. It's how they learn their physical skills. And, above all, it's how they learn their intellectual skills.
When they're playing, their brains are developing.
They love it when you play with them. But not when you're the boss of the game.
Watch them. See what game they're playing. Then offer to join in. Ask them to teach you the game. The rules may make no sense to you. It might be silly and childish. Well, duh. This is a child.
But what the child needs is a sense of control. The child is experimenting with choices, rules, boundaries. When you play with your child, you let them set those bounds -- and change them at will.
You will also teach them games with rules, as they develop to a point where they can understand them. Just remember that learning your rules isn't play, it's work. Once they've learned them, then they can play and have fun within those boundaries. But learning imposed from outside is work, not play.
Which is why the whole flash card thing backfires -- it's work. You're giving them a childhood without play because you're making them play your games all the time, and never playing theirs with them. So you stifle their creativity and initiative. You make them more timid, more tentative, less willing to try new things.
This isn't just an opinion, it's been measured. When you force your children to spend their toddlerhood on flash cards, you are actually retarding them.
The same effect continues throughout childhood. For instance, many children become reading machines the moment they learn to read -- until adults start assigning books and making kids keep reading journals and other nonsense. Immediately, reading becomes work and is no longer play; therefore many children look for other activities for their pleasure and stop reading anything that isn't assigned. The more adults try to control it, the less effective it becomes. Assigned games aren't play.
A lot of this has to do with reward and punishment. And rewards can be as damaging as punishments. If you take a group of kids, half of whom read for pleasure and half of whom avoid reading at all, and promise them rewards for each book they read, you might see an increase in reading ... for a while. But at the end, when the competition is over and the rewards stop, it isn't just the former non-readers who stop reading -- even the ones who used to read for pleasure also stop! Why? Because what was once play has been turned into a job for hire, and when the wages cease, so does the work.
Who Is This Kid?
For most of human history, most parents have instinctively and naturally done pretty much the right things. Of course there have always been lousy parents -- neglectful ones, brutal ones -- and it's the responsibility of society to take children away from negligent and cruel parents so they can have their fundamental needs met. That's one of the advantages of living in a civilized community -- even the children of lousy parents should get a chance.
But once those basic needs are met, what does a good parent do?
The main thing is that you enjoy your children. You don't try to make them follow some rigid schedule of achievements, you play with them and watch them and enjoy seeing each new triumph. Who cares if your kid walks two months later than another kid? Everybody's brain is on its own schedule. There's no correlation between, say, early walking and later intellectual prowess or athletic ability.
Instead, you observe how each child learns to walk and see how much pleasure -- or frustration -- she feels each step of the way. Right now our son and daughter-in-law are recounting to us how our first grandbaby gets so angry when she falls down in the process of trying to walk.
So is this the first sign of a perfectionist temperament? Is she always going to be hard on herself when she doesn't instantly succeed? No way to know ... yet. But if, later, she beats up on herself over every mistake, her parents will be able to talk her through it. "You've always had this need to be perfect right from the start, even when you were a baby -- you got mad when you fell down. But you still learned to walk, didn't you?" It becomes a basis for helping the child acquire self-knowledge later.
But you don't intervene and keep her from falling! Or get mad at her for getting mad! You watch, you learn, you enjoy, you remember. Our grandbaby has great parents who are doing everything right -- but the baby still falls on her bum and yells about it. That's right! That's how it's done!
You're Probably Doing Just Fine
That's why you owe it to yourself to read Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Even if you've already raised your children, this is actually a very reassuring book. It helps you realize how much the child is unconsciously in charge of his or her own learning, so that even your mistakes become relatively unimportant in the long run.
As long as you protected, fed, loved, played with, and carefully disciplined your child, you probably did all that you could do; everything else is and always was up to them.
That's the wonderful thing: Each child is a person, different from all other people. And the joy of parenthood is getting to know them and help them become, not the "best," but as good as they want to be.
And the result will be -- you guessed it -- happiness. For them and for you.
Because I've known a lot of people who are at the top of their profession -- who are the best. But I haven't seen any evidence that they are, because of that, any happier than anybody else. Indeed, the more competitive they are, the more miserable they are -- even if by any rational standard, they've won it all.
The happy people are the ones who are good -- who were loved and cared for and played with as children, and who therefore have an enormous capacity now to love and care and play. Other people -- including their own children -- enjoy their company. Everyone is happier because of them. Civilization works better because of them. They don't become famous for it. But they're what makes the whole human enterprise work.
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