Tag Archives: success

The Perils of Prize-giving

stripey eraserThe only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing. And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in Matric for ‘Social Awareness and Compassion for Others’. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we all wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time of school prize-givings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prize-giving in the December 4th issue of the Sunday times Lifestyle magazine (04.12.2011). He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation? In two of my previous columns I addressed these issues.

In ‘Pulverising kids with praise’ (Sunday Times 28/03/2010) I considered how easily-earned, excessive praise doesn’t really a child’s build self-esteem from the outside in.

In ‘Your kid is a Loser’ (Sunday Times 12/12/2010) I noted that all children lose some of the time, and some lose most of the time, yet their future success is determined by their persistence over time, not the number of trophies they are currently winning.

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed.  I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to …. “Thanks Mom”, he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prize-giving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning.  Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscars and the Nobel Prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decision. Those tools are called human beings. Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel Prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nobakov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards, makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prize-givings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition: Why Top Ten and not Top Eleven? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three Best Parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prize giving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never ‘got you’?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those,  that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Nonetheless. my award for milk consumption is a good memory, and I am still partial to dairy.

milk carton

Pragmatic parent-school partnerships

You’re a concerned parent and you’ve laid the foundation for your child’s educational success. Your home is full of books. You read or tell stories to your kid in bed. She likes conducting experiments, doing puzzles with you or reading an endless stream of bad jokes from her joke book. Even when you ignore your child, adult conversation in the home makes her aware of the world about her.

You’ve done a good job, not always intentionally, of preparing her for school. Perhaps it’s the state school down the road, or you’re paying a small fortune to a private college. At this stage you might begin to wonder what your role is.  Should you sit with your child while she completes every homework task, or should you leave it up to the school – after all, they’re the experts aren’t they? Should you defend her against every injustice or should you trust the school’s mechanisms to deal with your child’s issues?

I asked six teachers we know, from various schools, to give one piece of advice to parents. Here’s what they said:

  • “Don’t impose your memories of school on your child. Be knowledgeable about current teaching without being an interfering irritant.”
  • “Come to parents’ evenings. Keep in touch.”
  • “Work with me rather than gossiping in the parking lot. If you communicate contempt for teachers at home, believe me, we’ll know from your children’s behaviour at school.”
  • “[For school matters] let your child decide for herself and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “Raise your children in the home to see that learning is fun.”
  • “Get your kid organised. Teach them how to plan.”

The theme that runs through these comments is that you most definitely have a distinct role to play in the parent-child-teacher team, but understanding the parameters of that role is vital.parent-teacher-student1

Rule number one is to stay in touch with the school. Go to parents’ meetings and assemblies, respond to queries from teachers, check and sign homework where necessary, take part in some school activities aimed at parents. One teacher told me, “I probably shouldn’t admit this but if I know the parent well I give better service. ‘Seeing’ the parent’s face or ‘hearing’ their voice while I’m teaching or marking makes me a little more attentive to their child.”

Rule number two is to understand your limits. Support your child by encouraging organised work habits, responding to questions or providing advice, but don’t make decisions for them or do their work. A simple technique is to ask questions when your child comes to you for help, rather than give answers. If he asks you which famous person he should do a project on, don’t tell him – rather ask him to name the various people he admires and which one most interests him.  If he can’t solve a maths problem, don’t give him the answer – discuss various problem-solving strategies and then let him work out the answer, even if it’s wrong.

Like teachers, parents should not be out to gratify their own ego in the short term by coaching a child to false success. Rather allow children to learn from their own successes and failures.

The worst thing you can do is openly undermine teachers. Be realistic and realise that they, like you, are not perfect. Teaching is a tough job – it’s like running a children’s party on your own for six hours a day, every day. In your dealings with the school, bringing with you an understanding of teaching will increase the school’s support for you and your child. A friend of mine who is a parent makes a particular point of beginning the first parent-teacher meeting with a question or sympathetic comment about the difficulties of teaching – this helps him to actively imagine the teacher’s perspective and also makes the teacher feel understood.

What happens if there is a real problem at the school and your child is not able to deal with it himself? Perhaps a textbook is clearly racist, your child is being bullied or you believe the teacher is acting in some completely inappropriate way. Rather than moan about it in the parking lot or phone the principal, first contact the person with whom there is a problem. You teach your child a very powerful lesson if you first meet with the relevant teacher – that one should be brave enough to deal directly with a problem, and that both sides have a right to be heard before a matter is escalated. If that does not work out, take the next step up the school hierarchy.

Some reassurances – it’s ok if: one of your kid’s teachers is very strict; a teacher makes a mistake that will have no long term effect on your child; your child is given detention for a minor infringement; your child gets a B for a test, not an A, even though she always got As at her previous school; or your child doesn’t get a subjective award like Best Hockey Player. In the long term you want your child to be robust and resilient, which is less likely if you treat every mistake by the school as a major catastrophe or a plot against your child.

It all comes down to balance. It’s right to feel entitled to good service from your school. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that better-educated parents and their children, unlike those from disadvantaged areas, feel much more entitled to ask teachers questions or interrogate their ideas, which contributes to their success in the world. On the other hand you want to avoid being the kind of over-complaining parent who seldom lets his child make mistakes, suffer disappointment or find a way to deal with an imperfect world.

Where have all the heroes gone?

A version of this piece was published on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section on February 24th 2013.

It ends with the catastrophic fall from grace, but it starts with us. All of us, ordinary people, fans and followers, the media and the machineries of marketing and brand creation. We take note of a person’s sublime performances and we elevate them to the status of icon, hero, role model, even saint. They become potent symbols of our own yearning for achievement against the odds, for perfection and omnipotence.

And then we lose sight of their humanity and, sadly, very often so do they. In colluding with the myth-making, we allow our celebrities and heroes to believe they are somehow not bound by natural laws and the normal civilities. So we withhold the necessary corrective feedback when they behave badly and then one day it all comes crashing down.

Oscar, Lance, Tiger and Hansie. They have broken our hearts and betrayed our trust. But remember it started with us.

Somebody asked me recently why we even need heroes, but the question is pointless. Heroes and icons are inevitable. Their existence tells us something about our aspirations and something equally important about our needs and weaknesses.

Inevitably, we idealise.  I imagine that there are good evolutionary reasons why we seek larger-than-life heroes as role models. We feel we can learn from their strategies and attitudes, and there is potential survival value in following the path they have taken.

Heroes also make us feel better about the world and we draw inspiration from their triumphs against the odds.

For a while Oscar Pistorius showed us that it is possible to be born physically disabled and still make the final of an open Olympic event. Ashwin Willemse showed us that it is possible to be born in the Cape Flats and sworn into a gang, yet still play for the Springboks one day. Nelson Mandela had tea with Betsy Verwoerd and modelled a degree of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost superhuman in its transcendence of trauma and bitterness.

Up to a point these are inspiring stories, promises of a better life no matter our circumstances. That’s why there have always been and always will be heroes. And that’s why we tend to cast these heroes as role models.

At the same time, heroes have been letting us down throughout history. Lucifer was a fallen angel while Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Warrior, until he joined the Dark Side. Charles Lindbergh, aviator and all-American hero of the 1920s, turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser, while our own Winnie Mandela, Mother of the Nation, was directly implicated in the kidnapping and assault (and eventual death) of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi. Lance Armstrong beat cancer and drug testing protocols, and Oscar Pistorius … well, you get the point.

Nevertheless, our blind faith in heroes is often at the expense of the truth. Psychologists say this idealisation has its roots in the infantile defence mechanisms of ‘splitting’ and ‘primitive idealisation and devaluation.’

Splitting is seeing people or situations as either all good or all bad, so we unconsciously choose not to know about the messy and dangerous parts of our superheroes (and ourselves). We let ourselves believe that the villain is the Other and that he’s out there. That’s why our fairy tales are full of the polarities of good fairy godmothers and wicked witches, perfect princes and scheming barons, trusty steeds and bloodthirsty dragons.

Idealisation and devaluation are part of the same process. When we idealise celebrities, sports heroes or people in our own lives, we allow ourselves to know only what we admire about them. But when they disappoint us we are can see only what is spoiled and bad.

All defence mechanisms help us manage anxiety and protect us from what may be overwhelming or distressing. However, a central task of psychological maturity is the capacity to tolerate knowing that everybody, including people we admire and love and people we fear and dislike, and ourselves, are neither all good nor all bad. We need to integrate the difficult feelings evoked by this sometimes unsettling reality.

My thoughts have been prompted by Oscar Pistorius’s explosive and horrifying fall from grace. Obviously, terms and conditions apply to my next statements. We don’t know what really happened and we need to be careful neither to condemn nor absolve until the truth is exposed.

If, however, it turns out that Oscar (first names only for heroes) is found guilty we shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, we have been complicit in the myth-making. What Oscar has achieved is amazing, but there has been plenty of evidence along the way of as darker side. There are the alleged shooting incidents, police call-outs to domestic disturbances, disgruntled ex-girlfriends, boat crashes, risk-taking behaviours and so on. In many articles I’ve re-read about Oscar, journalists describe a whole range of dangerous behaviours and ominous portents but seem unwilling to come to any conclusion other than that these are part of a heroic temperament.

If, however, Oscar turns out to be innocent of any intention to kill, my argument still holds: he then turns out not be the monster we created either, but a man of enormous grit, charm and flawed impulses.

There is another explanation for our tendency to idealise heroes and make them into role models. We could argue, for example, that Oscar was good at running on blades, that’s all. Joost van der Westhuizen was good at rugby, Tiger Woods was a star golfer, Mel Gibson was a compelling actor, that’s all.

That is, we take a piece of known information about our heroes and we generalise it, and that little bit of them we know becomes the all of them. Oscar had courage and extraordinary levels of determination grit, and he was successful. So we assumed this meant he was the good guy in his private life and in the way he treated women, even if there were signs that this might not be the case.

When we are finally confronted with the ugly truth, it challenges the way we have arranged the world in our minds and it disturbs our equilibrium. We thought we knew our heroes, even though we really knew very little about them. We feel humiliated, foolish and angry because we believed in their goodness, even their greatness. Ask Lance Armstrong’s fanboys and public defenders. The final step is as inevitable as it is self-defeating – we move from idealisation to devaluation. We can hear no more good about our tarnished role model.

On the subject of role models and public perception, whenever I witness the latest downfall I find George_Orwell_press_photomyself turning once again to the ideas of the writer George Orwell. Orwell is a role model for how to look at role models, so to speak.

In an essay on Ghandi, Orwell was critical of the idea of saints (or heroes). He wrote ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent … The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’

So, too, the worshipping of saints and heroes.

We can still have heroes and objects of fantasy, but they should not be confused with role models.  As the former American basketball player, Charles Barkley, put it, ‘I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’

For these we should look closer to home. Parents who overcome their difficult pasts to raise sturdy, happy children, teenagers who overcome tragedy to succeed at school, nurses who deliver babies in the middle of the night, the vet who strokes your dog’s head while he passes away – these are the kind of ordinary role models we should draw our children’s attention to.

New York writer Madeleine George sums it up well: “… if you need your heroes to be perfect, you won’t have very many. Even Superman had his Kryptonite. I’d rather have my heroes be more like me: trying to do the right thing, sometimes messing up. Making mistakes. Saying you’re sorry. And forgiving other people when they mess up, too.” 

The problems of praise and positive thinking

WE live in the age of positive thinking, an urgent pursuit of self-improvement and feeling good about ourselves. In this we are guided by the opinions of “experts” and book shops teeming with tomes on self-help, not to mention the Oprah-fixation of the airwaves.

To put all of this in perspective, it’s worth noting two things: most psychopaths and highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves (debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem); and many of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers have lived filled with self-doubt and even unhappiness.

Assuming you don’t want to raise a psychopath or a miserable artist, reconsider what society has been telling you about raising your child. We are emerging from an era defined in the West by the striving for perfection and individual success, dominated by a belief in the importance of high self-esteem.

Smile-or-Die-How-Positive-ThWestern culture has long been largely intolerant of pessimism or “negativity”. The American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of
Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (also called “Smile Or Die”), tells how people didn’t want to hear that she was miserable about having breast cancer; they wanted her to tell them how she was going to defeat cancer with positive thinking. 

I believe self-esteem and positive thinking have become two of the most overused and misunderstood terms today. Parents often tell me that they want to raise their children to be motivated and have good self-esteem. Schools commonly suggest that a pupil’s problem is related to a lack of it. 

One of the strategies parents have been encouraged to use in order to build their kids’

self-esteem and improve motivation is to lavish praise and recognition. Judiciously used, all good things!

incredibles-dash

 

But the problem with this approach, when used excessively and uncritically, is revealed in the animated film The Incredibles. Dash is angry when his mother tells him he is not allowed to win races and that, in any case, everyone is special. Dash retorts: “That’s just another way of saying nobody is.”

 

 

Easy, ubiquitous praise and false reassurances do not build your child’s self-esteem — mainly because you can’t easily build self-esteem from the outside in. In a 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science by Wood, Perunovic and Lee, it was found that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating affirmations of their lovability. The authors say that “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most”. The greater the gap between our fantasised ideal self and our own experience of our authentic self, the greater the likelihood of dissatisfaction, anxiety and even depression.

How and when you offer praise is important:

  • Praise in moderation;
  • Always be sincere and authentic; and
  • Praise a specific effort not an attribute; give “process praise”. In other words, focus on engagement, perseverance, improvement and so on.

The last point is the most important. In a study on motivation by Carol Dweck, it was found that children who were praised for an innate ability, for example being smart, did worse than kids who were praised for something they did, like trying hard, or studying. That’s because you can control or repeat an action, but not who you “are”.

Children who believe that they are successful because of innate ability have what Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. They don’t recover well from setbacks, become preoccupied with image maintenance and are afraid to risk making a mistake.

In contrast, kids who believe that their achievements are related to their efforts and learning have a growth mind-set and are more likely to persevere, persist and study.

Dweck says that focusing on and praising effort gives children a variable they can control. If they make mistakes, they understand that they can expend effort to correct it.

Often, parents resort to excessive, generalised praise when they feel anxious they are not doing enough for their children. However, authentic, robust self-esteem and motivation develop not from overdoses of praise and “positive thinking”, but from feeling loved by, connected to and understood by our parents and carers.

We feel better about ourselves when we experience success in tasks that are important and meaningful to us; when we fail it is easier to cope and try again when we receive realistic and empathic feedback about our efforts from people who care about us.

And yes, that means being praised when we deserve it too. 

Parents make the difference

I wrote this column at the start of 2012. Matric results for the previous year had just been released and it made me think about what contributes to academic success – is it all a matter of the school your child goes to, or the amount of extra resources (and money) you devote to your child? And what about those parents who are not equipped themselves to make up for the distressing deficiencies in many parts of the State school system? How can all parents make a difference?

Parents often believe that they need a lot from experts to help make their children successful. That good school with its waiting list. That brilliant maths teacher whose students all seem to get distinctions. The occupational therapist who improves your son’s poor fine-motor coordination. The educational psychologist who recommends that your child get a scribe for exams.

As useful as any one of these experts is, think of him or her as only one runner in a relay race waiting for you, the parent, to pass on the baton. Unfortunately, some parents hand over the baton well after the others. These are parents who are less aware of or interested in the requirements of their children’s education, and the result is their children may forever struggle to catch up.

It’s a common sense belief that some parents or communities are better at preparing their children for school and careers than others, but how do we know this to be actually true? Various studies have confirmed this, one of which was published recently.

Every three years an international development agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tests 15-year olds from various developed countries, focusing on numeracy and literacy. Past studies have shown that the most skilled and well trained teachers have a significant impact on children’s school results and future success.

But the OECD recently undertook to investigate the role of parents. By 2009 the parents of 5000 students in 18 countries had been interviewed and the test results of their children correlated with the parents’ practices in the home.

One of the findings from the OECD research, as reported in The New York Times is:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during the first year of primary school show markedly higher scores … than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.”

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD, also said, “Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.”

Another interesting conclusion from the study was that even in poorer and less educated communities, where individual parents frequently read books to their children in grade one, the children of those more involved parents scored about 14 points higher than other children from the same background.

This finding has potentially huge implications for our country where, clearly, far too many children every year grow up in communities where parents, because of a history of educational disadvantage and deprivation, don’t really understand what schools require and are poorly equipped to prepare their children for school.

What I like most about these findings is how they point to very simple actions that any parent or caregiver can take immediately that will have long term benefits for their children.

Outside of the expensive, well resourced world of private schools and some of the better state schools, education is in a dire situation in South Africa. It’s something that we should be righteously angry about. The best minds in our government should be specifically tasked with saving our country from the future nightmare of masses of uneducated, illiterate and unemployable 18-year olds.

There are many reasons why the government’s responses to poor education results have been polite, beaurocratic and policy-focused rather than tackling real obstacles on the ground. There are powerful constitutiencies that would need to be taken on and, to be fair, the government already spends a huge proportion of its money on education.

However, the OECD report suggests there are steps we, as parents, can take now to help our children that don’t require challenging obstructive constituencies or spending lots of money.

In the meantime the best we can do for our children is to take action ourselves. Spread the word in your community about the importance of parental involvement in all aspects of education. At the very least, keep books, magazines and newspapers in your house. Read and tell stories to your pre-school children. Read and talk about what you’ve read in front of your children. Turn off the TV sometimes.

And when your children start school, ask them questions about their school day, about what they’ve learnt, what projects and group work they are doing. Attend school functions and parent-teacher meetings. Monitor your child’s progress, not in order to make sure they are coming first in class, but to show them that you care about how they are learning and are interested in what they are thinking.  

You can’t wait for the government to fix the schools or rely only on the experts to help your children. You can make the difference. 

And the award goes to….

THE only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing.

And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in matric for “Social Awareness and Compassion for Others”. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation?

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed. I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to … “Thanks Mom,” he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year-old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prizegiving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning. Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. Those tools are called human beings.

Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards and makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three best parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prizegiving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never “got you”?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those, that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.

Fail?

If you’re a parent I have some bad news for you: Success for your child is not inevitable. In fact, he’s going to be a loser. He’ll be trampled over on the soccer field by bigger, faster boys, and some smart girl at school will consign him to ‘first loser’s position’ in Maths.

A demotivational poster from despair.com

Of course, I’m mimicking the language of a particular approach to life and parenting that believes we are all destined for success. With the right amount of positive thinking and avoidance of negative thoughts, our children can achieve greatness. This philosophy reached its absurd climax in Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret, which appears to advise people to turn their gaze away from people who have failed.

In this approach, ‘success’ for children is defined as winning awards, making the A team, being perky and positive at all times, and one day making lots and lots of money. Failure to achieve some of these goals in childhood, which is inevitable for most kids, is experienced by parents as a blow to their ego.

Which begs the question, when children ‘fail’ whose disappointment is it really, yours or theirs?  Parents who live vicariously through their children are attempting to make up for their own experiences of failure through their children’s success. The child becomes a narcissistic extension of the parent, placing huge pressure on the child to perform. This view of success requires not just that your child triumphs, but that others must fail.

It’s human to admit that when your child is outperformed by other children, it stings a little. You want your child to be the one scoring goals for the team or being chosen for Science Olympiad, and you experience an uncomfortable moment when you discover your best friend’s child has been chosen for extension work and yours hasn’t.

Don’t pretend to yourself you don’t have these feelings, as some writers of self help motivational texts might advise. There comes a powerful and calming release from accepting that you are as susceptible to the same 7 deadly parental sins as anyone else, especially pride and envy.

Put your child’s ‘failure’ in perspective. He’s on a long journey in which the prize of success, as defined in a constructive way, goes to the one who endures, not the one who wins the first sprint. Children develop in spurts at different times. Some surge ahead now while others surpass them later. Some kids thrive at school while others find their niche only after that. Some children never lead the pack in measurable ways but succeed in being their best self.

Part of keeping things in perspective is revisiting your definition of success. Children are aware of the material ways society defines success, so it’s your job to stand tall for them. Remind them that a successful child is one who overcomes fear, takes necessary risks and keeps trying.  A timid child’s belated victory over the high slide in the playground is a victory to be acknowledged, not an embarrassment because his peers are already riding bikes. A girl who trips in 60m dash, keeps running and comes last, is a person whose courage should be celebrated.

It’s these moments that define you as a parent and lay a solid foundation for your child’s success. Steps to consider when your child stumbles:

  • Read your child’s emotions because some situations don’t need the topic of disappointment to be raised, as some events don’t need to be rehashed;
  • If you do say something, reassure your child how much respect you have that he tried his best;
  • Then redirect him towards the memory of past successes or things he is good at;
  • Finally, don’t blame others or promise to change what has happened (eg, phone his school to demand that he be given the Best Footballer trophy that was rightly his).

It’s a mistake to treat your child’s failure as contaminating and as a threat to your ego and your family’s legacy of success. If you do that, you run the serious risk or raising children who become fearful and overly-dependent, selfish, or very materialistic.

Bill Gates is said to have quipped that, ‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces people into thinking they can’t lose.’Our children do lose. If we, as parents, understand the inevitability of these necessary defeats, then we are helping our children to become the best versions of them selves over time.