Parent and school responses to the performance of children serve as a powerful force in the development of motivation, perseverance, confidence, and deeper feelings of self-worth. For many of us, 100’s on report cards and tests, home runs or great plays in Little League, and a house full of friends and numerous playdates, are a source of great pride and satisfaction. But, what feelings do we communicate in the face of average to below average performance? What do we say to the low grade? The strikeout or error? The weekends alone without phone calls or friends? The catch phrases are common. “As long as you tried your best, you’ll get them next time”, “If you work harder you’ll do better”, “Have you called anyone?”, “Do you need a tutor?”, etc. Interestingly, these types of phrases actually reinforce a child’s belief that her performance has disappointed you, as they all imply that you think she should do better. This subtle form of criticism becomes even more powerful when parents are successful and hard working, are personally anxious about their children’s performance, when the community is affluent and status conscious, and when children learn to evaluate themselves almost exclusively in comparison to their peers and siblings. There is ample research and little doubt, that a perceived parent or school pressure to be the “best”, coupled with an underlying fear of mediocrity or failure and corresponding parental and school criticism, can lead many of our children to some level of unhappiness. How then, should we approach our children’s successful, or average, or failing efforts, and more importantly how do we teach them the skills they need to manage these situations? In previous articles I’ve described several important “parenting” approaches to helping children learn values and develop motivation and problem solving skills. They include:
1) First and foremost is modeling; children learn more from what we do than what we say.
2)The management of our own emotions. The interplay between emotionality and rationality requires us to “self-assess” on a regular basis. Retrospective evaluation of our own behavior and it’s effectiveness is an ongoing process. Emotional neutrality is often a good thing.
3) Be cognizant of our own feelings, thoughts, and statements about others. How we talk about school, friends, other children, neighbors and relatives will have an impact on the values of our children. The walls have ears.
4) Create a somewhat open dialogue with our children, where they can express their ideas, feelings, and thoughts about substantive issues and values. Their character may be more important for success in life than their performance.
5) Reinforce the process of success. Rewards given for a final product have less impact on motivation and perseverance than rewards given for effort.
6) Understand the relationship between love and establishing boundaries.
7) Mistakes represent opportunities to learn. These ideas are just part of the complex and ever changing process of parenting. The more we self assess, the more we learn.