Fires in the Mind

Resisting the tiger

Matt Davidson, of the Institute for Excellence and Ethics, today posted a thoughtful response to the current polarized discussion about childrearing that’s resulted from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With thanks to Matt, we excerpt below his five suggestions for a different vision of parenting, drawn from the Institute’s work on developing “intentional cultures” of excellence and ethics. Our own focus on deliberate practice draws us particularly to his remarks in #2, #3, and #4.

1. Love your children as an end, not a means. Don’t use them to achieve your hopes and dreams—past or future. Don’t play them as pawns in your game of social climbing and competition.  Love them—with their unique personalities and temperaments, with their unique talents and abilities, and with all their unique character strengths and weaknesses.

2. View life as resistance training.  Developing the mind, body, and soul of a child is fundamentally about developing muscles. Consider your job as teacher and coach one of structuring just the right amount of resistance to keep your child’s muscles in a healthy tension, so they grow, develop, and are prepared for greater challenges. Don’t hurt them by piling on too much; don’t hurt them by taking the weight off every time they sweat or complain or hurt. Is this teacher or coach or boss hurting my child? Or stretching their muscles?  If someone is hurting them intellectually, physically, or emotionally, by all means it is your duty to intervene. But if your child is simply unhappy, uncomfortable, or simply unfamiliar with the way their muscles are being challenged, support them, encourage them, stay close to them—but don’t rescue them. Viewed as resistance training, helicopter parenting and Tiger Parenting are equally detrimental to development. It’s not about being mean or tough, easy or loving; it’s about promoting development. Promoting development requires knowing when and how to change your style and approach given the particular child and situation.

3. Stop looking at the scoreboard at the game and start paying attention to practice field. Too many parents are looking at the outcomes and wishing and hoping and worrying. Forget about the grades, the test scores, the final score or final standing. It’s not that those outcomes don’t matter. They do. But what matters more are the habits for excellence that you are creating each day. The research on deliberate practice (and lots of other very solid research on talent development, motivation, and the cultivation of expertise) indicates that if we teach our children to practice with focus, intensity, and consistency, if we teach them to find the will to start and the grit to stick with it, if we help them seek capable coaching and constructive critique—then our children will (1) reach their potential for excellence, (2) do just fine as measured by the “scoreboards of life.” Replace “did you win?” “Did you beat?” and “How do you rank?” with “Did you do your best?” “Did you improve and grow?” “Did you push outside your comfort zone?” The rest will take care of itself.

4. Form in your children an ethical conscience and a conscience of craft. In writing on the formation of conscience, Thomas Greene introduced these distinctions; our children need both. Our current economic struggles are a perfect storm of poorly formed ethical conscience—greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, dishonesty—and poorly formed conscience of craft—shoddy craftsmanship, lack of work ethic, lack of thrift, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The “three A’s of performance and moral character” (originally in our Smart & Good report) provide a self-inventory to help ensure that we develop an ethical conscience (an internal sense of right and wrong) and a conscience of craft (an internal sense of what it means to do our work well).

5. Develop the whole person. It’s an over-used cliché—but it’s still true. So many years ago Aristotle argued that happiness was the goal of a life well lived. Regardless of the parent, I truly believe that happiness is what they desire for their children. However misguided their processes, this is their desired outcome. In order to help our children achieve happiness we must build in them a diversified portfolio of assets: they need to be able to develop positive and productive relationships; communicate and collaborate with efficiency and effectiveness; manage priorities and stress; commit to high standards and continuous improvement; demonstrate emotional intelligence, integrity and responsibility; exhibit creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving; lead and serve others; and live a balanced, purposeful, and fulfilling life.

“The single greatest thing we can do for the educational and economic prosperity of this country is to raise our children well,” Matt concludes. “All the talk of Tiger Parenting brought the discussion back to the forefront; I hope that it does not distract and polarize. We simply must recommit, beginning at home, to intentionally building the culture of excellence and ethics.”

That ‘tono’ voice

At five, my daughter sometimes used to ask me why I was using that “tono” voice. (You know the voice, don’t pretend you don’t.) It usually brought me up short, but it also reminded me how much what we parents say—and how we say it—matters.

Even now that she’s grown up, she and I sometimes find ourselves remarking when one of us comes out with a “tono” voice. It’s become a habit to work together on that—and maybe not such a bad one!

In my last post here, I identified seven “life skills” that the parents I’ve been working with really wanted to see their children develop, with practice:

• Communication
• Courtesy
• Taking other perspectives
• Self-control
• Organization
• Time management
• Self-care

In our conversations, these parents are unpacking those skills, one by one. They’re looking at just what coaching kids need when they’re developing these skills—not just at school, but at home, with us as their guides.

For example, what communicative habits do we really care about in our children—so much that we are willing to model them ourselves, to break them down for kids, to help them practice their component parts, to encourage their progress, and to celebrate their success?

Here are some answers that we came up with:

We want kids to speak clearly, so we (and others) can understand them. We care about what tone of voice they use. And we want their words they choose to suit the occasion.

We also hope their body language—their posture, eye contact, expressions—will come across as respectful and appropriate.

And finally, we want them to listen attentively when others are speaking to them.

One thing that became apparent to us is that those skills carry over to many other realms. Teachers are always working on the same things in the classroom, for example. And when our kids grow up, good communication habits will serve them well whatever field they work in.

But parents are children’s first teachers. By the time our kids arrive at school, they sound and act like us, more than we even know. When they get mad, our words will come out of their mouths. When they interrupt, it’s because in our house it’s everybody’s habit.

So maybe our first job as coach is to monitor our own communication habits. And why not make that transparent to the kids? After all, it puts communication out there as something we all have to practice, all the time.

Dominique, who has a five-year-old boy, realized that to her chagrin. “I just tell him ‘can you make your bed?’ she said. “Sometimes I say please, and sometimes I don’t.”

However frustrating it may be at the time, practicing good communication habits at home pays off when our kids go out to school or other social contexts.

“People will say, ‘He’s such a pleasure to have over, he’s so polite!’” said Susan, who has a boy of nine. “I’m really surprised and happy to hear it, and when I tell him that the parents have said something to me, it has made a big difference to him.”

What are your family’s ways of practicing better communication? Send in your dilemmas and your stories. The rest of us would love to hear from you!

“Say please!”

How do we help our own children get really good at things? I’ve been meeting for the past couple of weeks with a group of elementary school parents, to think through the family’s role in helping their children practice the things that matter to them.

“What do you want your child to get good at?” I asked them. “How do you support them in practicing it?”

Their children, these folks told me, were involved in plenty of activities for which they had to practice regularly. Some studied musical instruments; others played on athletic teams. They all had homework to do, which we counted as practice for their academic classes.

At the top of everybody’s list, however, was a different kind of accomplishment. These parents were regularly striving to coach their kids in the everyday skills of managing a productive life.

“At first, I thought I would say sports, reading, piano, those sorts of types of things,” said Nina, the mother of an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl. “But then when I made my list, I really started with the life skills—basic things like being polite, saying hello and goodbye, please and thank you. To me, that’s bigger, even though I do want those other areas too.”

And as we began to look closely at the skills Nina was hoping her children would practice, we realized that common courtesy was only one of them.

Parents wanted their children to develop strength in communication: speaking clearly, making eye contact, using positive body language and appropriate words and tones of voice, listening attentively.

They wanted their sons and daughters to learn to see other people’s perspectives, to stand in others’ shoes. That would involve practice in imagining possibilities, empathizing, negotiating, making compromises, even apologizing.

They hoped their kids would practice self-control—checking their impulsive behavior, managing their frustration and anger, sticking with a task even when they didn’t feel like it.

They wanted children to practice organization—from putting their toys away to knowing where they left those library books. Kids should learn to organize their own backpacks for school in the morning, they said wistfully. And they hoped they would learn to manage their time as well: prioritizing tasks and chores, allowing enough time to get ready for school, for bed, and for scheduled activities.

And self-care made their list of “life skills.” Everybody hoped their kids would get in the habit of good personal hygiene, healthy eating and sleeping, and regular exercise.

As Tom and Huck would say, we’re trying hard to “sivilize” our young. But here’s the funny thing: When we really do practice those skills, we see them showing up in other areas, too.

Piano practice, baseball practice, math homework . . . they all require the habits we listed here. (We’ll look into that more in future posts.) Even more interesting, we couldn’t name any adult activities, work-related or not, that didn’t depend on those “dispositions for success,” as the research community has started to call them.

From a recent Education Week article:

Across education and industry, research . . . shows the biggest predictor of success is a student’s conscientiousness, as measured by such traits as dependability, perseverance through tasks, and work ethic. Agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional stability were the next-best predictors of college achievement, followed by variations on extroversion and openness to new experiences.

Just how to get our kids to practice such things has been a parent’s challenge well before Tom and Huck came along. Checklists seem to help the modern family. (Look here for how one family gets its 8-year-old twins out the door in the morning on their own steam.) We’ll be generating ideas and posting your own thoughts here regularly, as we develop our upcoming “Family Guide to Practice.”

For now . . . “Say please!”

Pick up the baton!

Watch 3-year old Jonathan joyously wield his conductor’s baton to the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you just have to ask: What happened here?

How many times has he listened to this music, making its rhythms and phrasing part of his physical and emotional world? Whose encouragement led him with baton in hand to express his whole-hearted glee? How often did he observe other conductors on the stand, soaking in and imitating their movements? And how often did he repeat his own rendition, fine-tuning it consciously or unconsciously each time?

In the answers, we might learn something about what contributes to building other skills that we hope our children will develop. Wiping his runny nose as he bounds through Beethoven, Jonathan overflows with innocent joy in his exploration and expression of the conductor’s craft. And the video’s last seconds, as he collapses in helpless laughter on the rug, vividly show the glorious stretch we feel when going to the limit for the next great thing we can do.

Unless we don’t feel that—because frustration or humiliation bring us down. Someone helped Jonathan get there, freeing him to celebrate every step and take another. Just think what our kids could do if we figured out how to be that person for them!

Starting today, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on a parent’s role in practice–whether our kids are practicing music, or athletics, or schoolwork, or getting to bed on time. Calling on your contributions as well as the research about cognition and development, we’ll create “A Family Guide to Practice” with ideas for parents and close-in caregivers. Please write in your questions and experiences—and stay tuned!

Helping young teenagers to practice

This month’s guest post for parents comes from Zaretta Hammond, an education consultant who works with educators and parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Zaretta’s work focuses on the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of struggling learners, with particular attention to issues of equity in learning.

My 14-year-old daughter asked me to buy her a guitar this month because she wanted to learn to play like Taylor Swift. This request opened up an opportunity for us to talk about what it would take for her to get really good at playing the guitar. I could see her enthusiasm for taking on this new adventure as she talked about learning to play. I wasn’t concerned about her passion and excitement, but her willingness to commit to the “hard part” — the deliberate practice –to get good when the novelty will wore off.

Early adolescence is a tough time in the parent-child relationship to support a child in getting good at something. Despite having helped our children “get good” at tying their shoes, riding a bike, learning to read, and a host of other skills, at this stage we have less control over whether or not they will commit to deliberate practice.

What’s our role in supporting our children to get good at something new, especially when they hit the hard parts? Deliberate practice has some distinguishing characteristics that are important to understand as we think about how to support our children at different ages and stages in getting good at something.

• It’s about mastering a technique, not completing a task. This gives deliberate practice a special purpose. Teenagers are better than younger children in seeing how the small parts fit together to create a bigger picture and lead to mastery. Use this as leverage in helping the young person identify which parts of the process he’s already mastered and which parts still need work. From here, you can help him work on a single technique at a time.

• Deliberate practice requires undivided attention and focus. It takes mindfulness, which is often a challenge to kids who are used to multi-tasking all day. It also requires us to cultivate the ability to redirect our attention when the mind drifts. Teenagers often resist unplugging from multiple gadgets and simultaneous tasks, and they’ll experience a bit of a withdrawal period. We can help them create routines and rituals to make the transition from multi-tasking to doing one thing at a time. That can help them get used to the feeling of focusing on one thing for an extended period of time before going into a period of deliberate practice.

Over time, teenagers’ stamina for sustained focus and attention will increase. We can also help them recognize when their attention drifts. Most people can only concentrate intensely for 15 minutes before they need to shift their attention for a few minutes before coming back to the task at hand.

• Deliberate practice requires that we manage the frustration of making mistakes. We need to get okay with making mistakes, learning to use them as information that can help us correct our technique. We can help our children take an inquiry stance toward their mistakes. Teach them to ask themselves questions about how they got a particular outcome when practicing a technique or procedure a particular way. What might happen if they change it in a particular way?

With an inquiry mindset, young teenagers will be less frustrated at making mistakes. When frustration does come up, and it always does even for the most seasoned learners, we can help them center themselves with simple stress reduction techniques like deep breathing or body movement.

What are your own experiences of helping your children with issues like these? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll reply with your story in the Comment field below.

A launch worth watching

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Shared curiosity, persistence, and the joy of learning shine out like a spotlight from “Homemade Spacecraft,” a 7-minute video by Luke Geissbuhler about his eight-month scientific adventure with his elementary-school-age son.

The film shows the climactic day of their mission: “to attach a HD video camera to a weather balloon and send it into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond our Earth.”

We see the boy and his dad test out their return parachute, and tuck their iPhone and the boy’s “reward if returned” note into a jerry-rigged lightweight orange insulated “space capsule” (smaller than a shoebox). Then they launch their helium-filled balloon, with camera, on its merry way. Their text explains what the journey entails:

Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall. It would have to survive 100 mph winds, temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing. To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds, and transmit a GPS signal to a cell phone tower [from an included on the launch]. Then we have to find it.

“Needless to say, there are a lot of variables to overcome,” this dad notes about their project. “Be responsible is the biggest.” They built their craft to meet FAA regulations for weather balloon payload, and launched it far from city air space. Their R&D stage took seven months, for both scientific and safety reasons:

The lighter it is, the faster it will rise and the less helium you have to put into it and so the more it can expand into the oversized balloon, hence the higher it will go. It also has to be able to shred in a jet engine, which isn’t easy. There are density requirements and you can’t use any cable or tie that won’t break with 50lbs of weight among other things.

At the climax of all that work, we see the magic of this balloon ascend into space, hear the whoosh of wind currents, gaze at the awe-inspiring curve of Earth through its camera’s lens.

I can’t help but think of all the kids who would be itching to do science, if science learning could only look like this. An interested adult, a compelling idea to explore, and then hours of meticulous effort together . . . that’s what lights fires in the mind, and keeps them burning years later.

Do you have stories like this to share, from the wide world of learning outside school walls? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best examples I receive.

Run along and learn!

Want to help your kids use their minds well? Take them out for a 20-minute run! More aerobic exercise produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate young people’s brains, according to several new studies of the effect of exercise described in the New York Times this week.

One study centered on how such exercise affects young people’s complex memory function (associated with the hippocampus in the brain). Another looked at its effect on the part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and “executive control.” Together, those two brain areas enable some of the most intricate thinking, researchers pointed out. And they saw a difference in kids after even a short period of vigorous walking.

These findings arrive at an important time, points out Gretchen Reynolds in the Times:

For budgetary and administrative reasons, school boards are curtailing physical education, while on their own, children grow increasingly sluggish. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that roughly a quarter of children participate in zero physical activity outside of school.

Photo courtesy of Will Okun

Social genius and ‘disability’

I just caught up with Anderson Williams’s post about his “profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics.” Anderson, a youth development activist with an M.F.A., likened what these kids did to Picasso’s particular genius: deconstructing tired norms “to paint like a child.”

Williams saw a “social genius” in the social and educational world these youth built during their time together. Defying social and cultural norms, he says, they set out to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. He writes:

In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. . . . The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

His examples reminded me of the advice “Dance like nobody’s watching.” These kids pulled off something that takes “courageous humanity,” he says. But getting good at it also takes practice, by adults as well as youth. Anderson reminds us that we need constantly to work toward

more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences” . . . rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of [these youth] beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people.

What are your experiences with helping young people “practice outside the lines” of what the larger society considers “excellence”? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best comments we receive.

Summer learning for kids

In a neighbor’s kitchen last summer, I noticed a couple of colorful handwritten checklists, each with about 25 items, which her two kids had posted on the refrigerator door. In big letters at the top they had printed, “Things I want to do this summer!”

Those dreams were filled with energy and exploration—from “make $ to buy a new bike” to “sleep out in a tent.” Okay, some were pretty clearly daydreams, but others could be carried out with only modest parental time and resources.

And if the right supports are there, it’s plans like these that make summer a time of enormous opportunity for growth and learning.

But with youth programs getting the ax and summer youth employment at an all-time low, by this week plenty of parents are worrying about what their kids are doing during these long hot days.

Camp, enrichment programs, or summer school aren’t in the schedule for three out of four schoolchildren nationwide, according to a new study by the Afterschool Alliance—even though more than half of their parents would send them, if they could.

We parents have seen for ourselves the consequences of a summer spent sleeping late and whiling away the lazy hours with television or video games. And the research backs that up: Without effective summer learning opportunities, most students fall more than two months behind in math between June and September. Low-income children also lose two to three months in reading every summer—so that by the end of fifth grade, they are nearly three years behind their high-income peers.

Part of the solution for worried parents is to push national, city, and school district officials to prioritize high-quality summer opportunities for students. A bill is now stalled in the U.S. Senate that would provide $1 billion over ten years to fund 350,000 summer jobs for teenagers and young adults ages 14 through 24.

But parents can’t wait to solve the immediate problem that faces them over the next seven or eight weeks. Over my next several posts, I’ll propose some practical activities that can keep kids active and stimulated, learning and growing, on their own or with others.

Step 1: Sit down with your kids to brainstorm their own list! If you listen with interest and don’t put down their ideas, at least some of their dreams will intersect with real-world possibilities. The goal: By summer’s end, they’ll be able check off at least some of the items they post on your refrigerator door.

Watch for the suggestions coming up in my next posts. Meanwhile, leave your own ideas in the Comment column! I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is one of the best suggestions received!

When kids jump in to a challenge

What makes kids want to work at something hard? I was thinking about that the other day, as I watched an episode of the TV show “Parenthood” on Hulu. Max, who’s about 8, is seriously avoiding getting out there with his dad to work on his baseball skills. It’s easy to see that his over-anxious dad is pushing too hard—but when Max’s 14-year-old cousin takes the lead in tossing the ball around, Max brightens right up, and somehow learns to catch.

The scene rings true to what kids tell us in Fires in the Mind. When other kids they admire beckon them into a challenge, they’re much more likely to put in the effort.

Kellie, for example, first learned to jump rope with her playmates on the sidewalks of New York. Right away, the complicated maneuvers of Double-Dutch had her mesmerized. “The first thing I had to know was when to jump in, to get inside of the rope,” she said. “My sister helped me, by counting from one to three or five. I would jump in from the right side, between the rhythm of the ropes or the count in my head, and the rope closest to me had to be in the air. It would usually take me so long that the turners would stop turning and look at me!”

Kellie has so much to teach us here, about motivation and also about mastery. She saw something that looked amazing to her, and she wanted to do it — but it took her older sister’s encouragement for her to get up the nerve to try it. That first hurdle crossed, Katie immediately started breaking down the steps to getting it right, again and again. She was on her way to getting good!

Whether it’s a baseball game or a homework assignment, when have you noticed your kids getting past their reluctance to work at something hard? What drew them in? What happened next? I’ll send a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever leaves the most interesting answer in the Comment box below.

No one can blow that horn but you!

I recently had a very interesting letter from a teacher named John, in Southern Ontario. He had retired last June after 25 years of teaching high school English — followed by seven years as a music educator!

In those last years teaching music, he says, he developed a passion for it that went far beyond his real enthusiasm for teaching English.

Now John volunteers at a local elementary school, where he has started a concert band. None of his students could read music when they joined the band, he says. Most of them joined “because it looked like fun, because they wanted to be with others who were doing it.”

The kids, John wrote, pulled off a laudable winter concert. But now, he said, “the honeymoon is over!” As the children reach a musical level where they hit significant frustration, they are starting to drop out of the band.

John is a big believer in practice. He knows that’s all his students need to make it past the hump. But he says that he can’t compete with the culture that surrounds them.

Athletics compete with music for kids’ time. A high-tech paradise entices and distracts them. And too few parents can be there to cheer kids on through those frustrating practice sessions in the six days between rehearsals.

In music, just like sports, you just can’t get away with not doing the practice. “You can rip off an essay from the internet,” this former English teacher says. “But no one can blow that horn but you!”

What do parents think of John’s dilemma? Let us know how you are handling the problem! We’ll mail a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever sends in the best comment on this subject.