Tag Archives: dads

The Power of Praise- John Cowan investigates

29 May

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Confused by whether or not praise is good for your children?

Psychologists fight, but it is a very dull sport to watch. They fire volleys of academic papers at each other before slinking back to their universities and clinics. The dull bit is that you cannot tell who has won. One current raging battle is about praising children.

Some say praise is great and some say it is just manipulation that turns kids into spineless ‘pleasers’. I’ve wandered through the smoke and noise of the battle field (i.e. I have done some pretty intense Googling) to find out what the two camps are on about. Both sides have got their heavy duty PhDs and their research and they both sound very plausible, so how could anyone choose who is right? Well, I can. Of course, I could be wrong, but I am assuming you probably won’t be able to prove it!

I had always thought that praise was great. “Praise is the fastest route to change” is a quote I saw years ago, not in a parenting book but in a management manual. It went on to say that praise works faster than nagging, threats and bribes in changing behaviour to the desired outcome. I took that advice to heart and it has been one of my staple beliefs about how to raise children. I’ve used it at home with my own kids and taught it in courses and seminars. I always found it creates a very agreeable atmosphere in the home as well as ‘doing the trick’ of shaping their behaviour.

One of the things I especially liked about praise as a parenting tool is that it encourages us to seek out and focus on children’s positive behaviour rather than just discovering their misbehaviour and criticising it. I suspect parents possess an innate super-sense to spot mischief, even through solid walls. (Surely some psychologist could get a grant to research this). Most parents seem to be able to stare at a closed bedroom door and tell, just by the mere silence emanating from it, that their children must be up to something on the other side! With a little effort, that same ability can be tweaked to spot their good behaviour and not just their bad.

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When you focus on the positive it is amazing how much you actually like your children more: even if it did not budge behaviour one iota, it at least feels like you have got nicer kids.  But it does change behaviour – even the critics of praise concede that – and that is actually one of the key objections critics have of praise: it is controlling. “Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behaviour, typically someone with less power”, writes education expert, Alfie Kohn. “More to the point, it’s likely to be experienced as controlling regardless of the praiser’s intention. Praise is a pat on the head, ‘pat’ being short for ‘patronizing’”, he says in an article called Five Reasons to Storp Saying “Good Job”1Professor Rheta DeVries of the University of Northern Iowa calls it ‘sugar-coated control’: basically it is behaviourism, an attempt to manipulate people like lab-rats with rewards and punishments. It assumes that all the behaviour is due to the reward; it ignores the feelings and values and other motives that might be involved.

In two books, ‘Punished by Rewards’ and ‘Unconditional Parenting’, Kohn unpacks some of his other objections. He thinks it creates “praise junkies who are constantly looking for approval and who depend on other people for their self esteem. It makes them afraid of losing that constant stream of feedback.

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Research by Mary Budd Rowe in Florida found that when students were highly praised by their teachers they were a lot less confident about giving answers in class, less likely to share ideas, backed down quickly if challenged by an adult and gave up on difficult tasks – it seemed that whenever there was a chance that they might jeopardise getting a “well done!” from the teacher, they weren’t prepared to take that risk. Like a drug, they get used to a regular high dose of praise; when praise is withheld it really feels like a punishment. I recall Dr Sylvia Rimm, when she visited New Zealand many years ago, talking about why bright kids often fail in higher education. Throughout their early school years they received high levels of praise – they got honoured as ‘top-of-the-class’ and their work was held up in front of others. But as they move up into high school and university, they get streamed in amongst other bright kids. They are no longer the top of the pile; they are just one of many similarly-smart students. They may still be getting a reasonable amount of good feedback, but nothing like the rate of praise they received when they were the star of their primary classroom, the big fish in the little school pond. The drop feels awful, and many kids give up making the effort that keeps them achieving.

What about kids who are not such high achievers? They simply dislike the idea of being judged. “The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged,” says Kohn.

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Praise might even take the pleasure and interest out of doing things. If you practice the piano, there is an ‘intrinsic’ reward: music! You can actually play the piano! But what if you practice the piano to get stickers on a reward chart or some other award or treat? Those are ‘extrinsic’ rewards. “What happens when you get older and don’t get stars?” asks Paul Raeburn in Psychology Today. “Do you lose interest in practising when you’ve lost extrinsic rewards that you’ve become accustomed to? The research suggests that you do.” He continues, “We praise drawings or spelling papers because we want our kids to continue to work hard and to do good work … But what we really want to teach our children is that they should do good work because of the satisfaction it provides, not to earn praise from parents or teachers. I’ve often wondered why so few Americans read books—serious novels and nonfiction. Could it be because  we were so conditioned to getting A’s for reading Melvile or Hawthorne that there is no joy left in reading them for the pleasure and enlightenment they provide? I can’t cite research to answer that question, but I think it’s a good guess.”

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What if that also applies to moral behaviour? What happens if kids learn to be kind and generous and caring simply because it attracts the positive attention of adults? Does the good behaviour stop when the rewards do? Alarmingly, yes! Or so some research seems to suggest. Joan Grusec in Toronto noted that children who were praised for generosity became less generous in the playground (when they weren’t being praised by the teacher) than kids who were not. Generosity became a means of getting praise from adults and not just something that felt good to do.

So, have Kohn and crew convinced me to shelve praise as a parenting tool? No … but their evidence does suggest ways in which we modify our use of praise.

First of all, I do believe that it is right for parents to shape children’s behaviour. It’s not manipulation, it’s parenting. We have the benefit of decades of experience, we have learnt that things like manners, respect, generosity and cooperation actually work very well. It is not a matter of wanting to control or impose our wills on children, it is the firm belief that the most loving thing to do for children is to help them learn to behave ‘well’: it is the the best thing for them and society.

Secondly, I do take very seriously Kohn’s points about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, but I think that a praise and reward system can still have a place. External rewards, like praise and star charts, are great ways to start behaviour moving in a new direction, but it is not ideal for maintaining it. The trick is to help the child  realise the real value or pleasure of what they are doing. You might start off by praising them for cleaning their bedroom, but you move on to saying things like, “It must be really nice having a room that is so tidy and you can find everything”; “I feel good every time I go in your room – I bet you do too, it’s so nice and tidy.” You are moving from an external reward to an internal reward, teaching them to reward themselves. You move from, “Good on you for doing your homework” to “Once you get the hang of it, isn’t science fascinating!” – you are connecting them to the intrinsic reward of knowledge rather than simply getting approval for work done.

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We should also beware of empty praise and excessive praise. Children soon pick up on the fact that this is meaningless and manipulative. When Farmer Hoggett says, “That’ll do, pig” at the end of the movie Babe, it is powerful not because it is part of a torrent of praise but for the very opposite. Those few words from a taciturn man  poke volumes, and the pig (and audience) melted.

And finally, there is a huge difference between ‘person’ praise and ‘process’ praise. A team led by Elizabeth Gundersen at The University of Chicago have been doing a long term project. They filmed parents interacting with their children, in their own homes. They did it when the children were one, then two and again at three. Five years later, they tested the now eight-year-old children, measuring all sorts of behaviours. How those children were praised, when they were little, seemed to have a big effect. Some parents praised their kids with things like “You’re a clever kid”, “You’re tall”, “You’re pretty”: this is called ‘person praise’: compliments for who and what they were: their intelligence, skill, looks, height – things they have no control over. Other kids were praised for their effort and their actions – that’s called ‘process praise’ – and those kids at eight enjoyed challenging tasks, they could overcome setbacks and believed that hard work can improve intelligence and personality.

Person praise locks kids into thinking you are what you are – if they don’t do well, they think that’s just the way I am, but process praise gives kids the exciting belief that they can change and get better. “These findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise may help children develop the belief that their future success is in their own hands,” said Gunderson.

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So, go ahead and be generous with praise – just be sure it is not empty, manipulative and taking away a child’s real motivation. Praise them for their efforts and actions, rather than their looks and intelligence. Some may worry our children will depend too much on our approval, but I doubt there are few things nicer to have in the back of our heads than the idea that our Mum and Dad are proud of us.

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The Boys’ Club

12 Dec

from Parenting Magazine www.theparentingplace.com

John Cowan on boys, what makes them tick, and what they need to learn and grow.

I have had very little experience of being a girl, but I have been a boy for a long time, and so I thought I would share a few scattered insights into what I have discovered to be particularly useful about myself and my fellow boys. By the way, don’t be deceived by the receding hairlines and business shirts: you don’t have to peel back many layers of your typical bloke before you discover there is still a boy inside. Things that peel back those layers include motorbikes, flames, sport and I’ll end the list here as my wife will be reading this.

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I have already dropped into using stereotypes, and some stereotypes are just plain wrong, especially the ones based on Tom Sawyer and beer commercials. An article on boys has to deal with generalities and features common to many boys, but it may not describe your lad at all well. Boys are different from girls, definitely; but boys are also very different from each other, and should be encouraged to be. Sometimes parents (Dads especially?) see masculine stereotypes as being some sort of code for our boys, something they have to follow to be true men: don’t show emotion, winning fights proves your masculinity, work hard, protect women etc. etc. Not all negative, but probably not all that helpful. Stereotypes can be descriptive, but they shouldn’t be prescriptive.

.One of the stereotypes is that boys are basically cavemen. They may pong at times and have feral manners, they might fight and do reckless dangerous things, but don’t assume that boys are insensitive, empty headed and only have three basic emotions: mad, glad and sad. Parents sometimes confuse an inability to communicate with nothing to communicate. Girls are definitely streets ahead of boys, communication-wise: they acquire language earlier and maintain that advantage. They have a much better vocabulary whereas boys like me are just, yunno, thingy. There is a lot going on in their heads, but they have neither the words to describe it nor a repertoire of behaviours to express it appropriately. A boy might feel confused, alienated, conflicted, passionate … and yet it all might look like anger to an observer. A boy might appear distressed but be unable to tell you why – but there’s the clue right in front of you: he appears upset. Read your boy’s body language and demeanour. The way he walks, the set of shoulders, the clouds that cross his expression: these are seldom meaningless. He might not be able to make the right words, and he might not be ready to absorb many of your words yet either, so use the same non-verbal language he is using: use your closeness, your hugs and you accepting expression to communicate your care and concern.

There are other clues about his internal world as well. For example, you can deduce a lot about how he thinks about himself by the friends he chooses to hang out with. His self-esteem determines whom he gravitates towards. If your boy tends to hang out with confident boys who are full of drive, then that is how he sees himself; likewise, if he tends to associate more with boys who retire to the background, that could be an insight into his self-esteem as well.

Some lines of questioning may lock boys up even more. “Why?” questions are particularly useless. “Why did you go on the internet when I told you not to?” “Why did you hit your brother?” The right answer to questions like that is, of course, “Dunno”. Similarly, asking a boy how he feels is likely to be fruitless. Instead, parenting guru Michael Grose suggests asking them what they think instead. Ask a boy for his opinion about something and you will usually get some pretty clear insights into what he is feeling.

 pm51_BoysClubPages-text1What motivated me as a boy? The same thing as every other boy – a desperate desire to be liked and approved of. When a boy has a cheering team (even if it only has one person in it) he does so much better. He will notice that you came to his school concert, and even though he never seems to look at you from the stage, he will notice if you listened to every piece or got bored and read emails on your phone. It is an incredible tonic knowing that he matters to you and you take an interest in him, but don’t expect him to know how to express that. In fact he might even act embarrassed by you afterwards as you are exiting with all the other parents and kids, and tell you off for taking too many pictures or clapping too loudly. Many boys are conflicted: they love to be honoured by you but hate to stand out in any way as different from their mates. I remember at least two parents mentioning how their boys were doing really well at school, until they received some prize or recognition at an assembly. They were so embarrassed their performance fell right back. “It’s cool to be a fool” is still part of the culture for many boys.

 Boys love the respect and favour of older guys and men. This can be great: if they are good role models and mentors, your boys will ‘download the software’ to be a good man from them. I think that it is great that most boys stay in school until they are 18 to get a good education, but it does delay the time when they meet and work alongside older men until much later in their lives. Their world is full of similarly-aged peers and I think it is delaying the maturation and character development of our young men. My recommendation is that you engineer opportunities for your boys to interact with good men. As a young teenager, I can remember when my Dad took me away on a fishing trip with his mates. I thought they were a bit of a boring bunch of old guys, but I did feel so grown up going away with the men, and grateful that my Dad gave me that experience.  Involve them in the communities you interact with. Take them to your workplace. Get them involved in sports, social and hobby clubs. Have parties at your place and, instead of letting them hide on their Playstation, get them involved taking around refreshments and food. Draw them into conversations with your friends and ask their opinions.

Be clear on this, too: older males can have powerfully negative influence on your young boys as well. Older boys are a common feature in younger boys being introduced to drugs and alcohol, porn and other mischief. Sometimes the boys most vulnerable to negative influences are boys who have difficulty fitting in with their peers, and will do anything to be accepted. A huge part of parenting is shepherding the influences in our kids’ lives and keeping our supervision and instincts switched on.

That desire to be liked has been linked to why boys underperform at school. A simple and not surprising fact is that teachers prefer girls. Of course there are many teachers who love teaching boys but, on average, both male and female teachers would rather have girls in the class – neater work, quieter, more cooperative … who could blame them? Dr Bonny Hartley’s research in the UK showed that boys believed their teachers thought they were ‘dumber’ than girls, and came to believe it about themselves as well. If a boy picks up he is not liked by a teacher, the feeling is likely to be reciprocated. Australian educator Ian Lillicoe sees this as vital: “If a girl doesn’t like her teacher, she can still can get around her teacher to get to the subject; but for boys, if they hate the teacher, they’ll hate the subject.” As psychologist Steve Biddulph says, “Boys learn teachers and not subject.”

What kinds of teachers bring out the best in boys? According to Lillicoe:

  1. Boys love teachers with a sense of humour.
  2. They hate it when teachers aren’t fair, such as punishing a group for one child’s wrongdoing.
  3. They love it when teachers love their subject. Ian Lillicoe mentioned he had a maths teacher at high school who used to weep at a beautiful maths solution. They thought he was nuts, but five boys in his class became maths teachers, including himself.
  4. Boys love to hear stories.pm51_BoysClubPages-text2

I was one of four boys (and one girl), and my wife and I have two boys (and one girl). I’ve put both of those girls in parentheses because the boys feel safer that way. It is my opinion (unpolluted by anything like research evidence) that girls who grow up surrounded by boys seem to be remarkably resilient and somewhat daunting to their brothers. That’s a key point: boys are more comfortable with other boys. As a toddler, a boy is probably just as happy playing with girls as boys, but from about four years of age, when the testosterone really comes on stream, his preference is very clear. He will still play with girls, but only if there are no boys to play with. Both boys and girls form samesex gangs, but boys defend the boundaries of their gangs more ferociously. It has to be a remarkable girl who can join in with a boy gang, and a boy who defects to play with girls risks severe mocking. I remember in our primary school playground we would lock arms and walk around in a row recruiting other boys to play, singing “Who-wants-to-play, cowboys-and-Indians, but-no- girls.” I’m sure that type of chauvinism would be banned in the playground now (cowboys and Indians is probably too racist and violent by today’s standards as well), but the preference for same sex company remains, peaking at about eight years of age. At puberty, their attitude to girls changes; in fact, it is amazing how quickly they go from being afraid of girl germs, to actually being at risk of catching them. But even though they are now fascinated by and attracted to girls, most males will be at their most relaxed in the company of other blokes.

Boys definitely do better with male teachers. The reasons might be quite simple: as well as tolerating boy restlessness and noisiness better, male teachers speak more loudly, more slowly and with fewer words than their female colleagues, which suits the slower auditory processing of boys. Are single sex schools (or single sex-classrooms) better for boys? For some boys, they are undoubtedly better off.

pm51_BoysClubPages-4A four-year long Cambridge university study found that single-sex class-rooms (even with co-ed schools) were remarkably effective in boosting boys’ performance, particularly in English and foreign languages. “We don’t just do war poems and Macbeth, we do Wordsworth too. It’s a challenge, in a way, which Mr J sets us to show the girls we’re capable of doing it, but I couldn’t talk about these things if there were girls there!” (Interestingly, a same-sex scenario produced a similar improvement for girls studying maths and science). A case sometimes made against single sex schools is that the resulting ‘macho’ culture is very hard on boys who do not fit the normal ‘boy’ stereotype, for example, boys who are not keen on sport. If this still happens, I think it is more likely to be the result of the school culture rather than boy culture. The Cambridge study showed that gender-atypical boys actually fared better in a same sex class or school: “These ‘nonmacho’ boys told us – without exception – that they felt at ease and comfortable, that they did not experience bullying or aggressive behaviour from other boys, and that they were not intimidated by the atmosphere in all-boys’ classes.”

Maybe a single-sex school isn’t an option for you, or one you reject for the reasonable reason that you want your boy to learn how to interact with girls in a more normal context. But if your boy is struggling academically, do consider hiring a male (maybe a senior student) as coach in the subjects he is struggling in.

 

 

on boys, what makes them tick, and what they need to learn and grow.

7 reasons parents are doing better than ever – by John Cowan

12 Nov

from Parenting Magazine www.theparentingplace.com

Are parents doing a better job than they were a few years ago? Well EVERYONE KNOWS children today are spoilt, over fed, disobedient, dumbed down, spend too much time on the internet and not enough time doing home work… and of course they all take drugs. So it follows parents today are appalling, a fact quickly confirmed by the majority of in-laws. Actually, I would argue that there are good reasons to believe you are a better parent than many of the parents a generation ago. It’s not hard to find examples of parents doing an appalling job and too many struggle with poverty and other problems but, in general, I think the current crop of parents are great. Here are my reasons:

      1. For a start, you are reading this. Thousands of parents read this and other parenting magazines or browse parenting articles online. Chances are you own parenting books (selected from hundreds of titles available) and you have probably been toparenting courses. I would safely wager you consciously up-skill yourself as a parent far more than your parents’ generation, simply because they never had the opportunity. When I started with The Parenting Place (then called Parenting with Confidence) in the midnineties, we were practically the only parenting organisation on the block. Resources were scarce: we imported books, magazines and speakers from overseas. Parenting education was something a school might occasionally attempt to put on, and these events were usually attended by about three parents, usually the mothers of the best behaved kids in the school.

      2. The second thing I would say in defence of modern parents is that Dads are taking their role more seriously. “WHICH men!?” you might snort derisively. Okay, my gender has a long way to go – Mums are still shouldering the lioness’s share of the parenting burden – but at least we are now feeling guilty about it. They are less shackled by stale masculine stereotypes and are conscious that they need to be involved with their kids. I’ve often met new dads who are quick to show off their prowess at looking after their infant. As the years have gone on I am delighted to see the proportion of men attending our events increase, and our Fathers’ Breakfasts are full of men earnestly wanting to do better.

      3. When I was a kid we rode in the back of utes, never wore helmets on bikes, played unsupervised around creeks and railway lines and had a hearty disregard for hygiene and safety. It was a great childhood… at least for those of us who survived it. Of course, most of us survived just fine, but the statistics definitely show that some didn’t; it was a more dangerous world for children back then. Actually, there are still far too many accidents. Compared with Australian children, our kids are twice as likely to die from injuries and three times as likely as children in England and Wales. If today is an average day, ten kiwi kids will suffer moderate to severe injuries and one child dies from injuries every five days(1). But that rate is a half of what it was in the early nineties(2) and less than a quarter of the rate in my childhood. Well done parents! When it comes to child abuse, the rates are far higher than decades ago, but I think this might in part reflect that it is tolerated less and is reported more

      4. Parents today think more about parenting and have a more sophisticated approach to parenting problems. I cannot cite any research on this but I have had a ringside seat in observing family life over many years, and I am impressed by the competence and knowledge of modern parents. When I was young, there were only two types of bread – white and brown – and only two types of child behaviour – good and naughty. Many in my era were just labelled naughty or stupid, and were whacked and punished, when in fact they may well have had ADHD, learning problems or psychological issues. Parents are much more prepared to look for reasons for behaviour, and to seek solutions apart from punishment. And when they go looking, they can find all sorts of help: school counsellors, psychologists, support agencies and parenting courses. Parents today benefit from the input of hundreds of professionals and dozens of agencies, and I believe they are making a huge difference

     5. I think kids are getting a better education today and parents can take some of the credit. Parents get more involved in education, volunteering and taking an interest. Parents are prepared to support children in their education longer, provide more resources and access extra coaching. Some would say that modern education has been dumbed down, and find old exam papers to show how much more advanced students were in the past. But they are not comparing apples with apples. There were around 1000 pupils in my high school back in the seventies. About half of them left in the fifth form (Year 11); there were only 17 students in the whole seventh form (year 13). Yes, the average senior student was probably better educated and doing more advanced work in my day, simply because all but the most academic had already been weeded out

       6. Parents have always loved their kids – I don’t doubt that for a moment. But it is lovely seeing a generation of parents who don’t mind showing it. “I love you” was something we saw American parents saying to their kids on TV programmes; in good old New Zealand we were a little more reserved, and saved stuff like that for our death beds. As I say, I am not implying that modern parents love their kids more, but I think they are definitely better at showing it.

      7. Parents are older today. I know, we are all older than we were yesterday, but what I mean is that couples are often delaying having children. The median age of first-time mothers has risen from 23 years old in the seventies to nearly 31 in recent years. Compared with young couples who leap straight into procreation, older parents tend to have more money, a bit more maturity and a relationship that has already been road-tested for a few years before subjecting it to the stress of parenthood. Families are also smaller, and though I’m not convinced it makes a huge difference, it probably means there is more to go around.

Please don’t use this article as grounds to boast to your parents that you are a better parent than they were (even if it is true!), but I hope you feel encouraged.

1 Source ACC.
2 http://www.nzchildren.co.nz/hospital_admissions.16 Parenting Spring 2012 php#Footnote_1

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