Love the learner, not the grade

Re­ward­ing kids for top scores may af­fect their men­tal health

Calgary Herald - - YOU - JES­SICA LAHEY

When I’m in schools talk­ing to kids about re­silience and learn­ing through fail­ure, I usu­ally be­gin with a quick sur­vey. First, I ask staff and teach­ers to close their eyes. I then ask the stu­dents to raise their hands if they get paid for good grades. De­pend­ing on the so­cio-eco­nomic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 per cent of hands go up.

I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any ma­te­rial thing in ex­change for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny en­tice­ment. In re­sponse, about 20 to 25 per cent of the hands go up. I warn the stu­dents that this last ques­tion is harder, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an hon­est answer.

“Raise your hand if you truly be­lieve your par­ents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”

I’ve asked this ques­tion to thou­sands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the per­cent­ages still sur­prise me. Among mid­dle-school chil­dren, about 80 per cent be­lieve that, yes, their par­ents truly love them more when they de­liver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the av­er­age is about 90 per cent.

I re­as­sure them that for the most part, their per­cep­tions are incorrect, that they are loved no mat­ter what, but we par­ents of­ten need a mo­ment to come up with the right re­sponse to an un­ex­pect­edly low grade. Sure, we are dis­ap­pointed, but that si­lence they en­counter when they bring home a re­port card lit­tered with B-mi­nuses (Bmi­nus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less.

I’m a par­ent, how­ever, and I un­der­stand the truth be­hind that pause, even if I don’t want to ad­mit it. That si­lence is the with­drawal of love based on per­for­mance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.

Par­ent­ing and sports psy­chol­o­gist Jim Tay­lor calls it “out­come love,” a trans­ac­tion in which par­ents be­stow love in ex­change for their chil­dren’s suc­cess and with­draw it as pun­ish­ment for fail­ures.

Out­come love im­pedes chil­dren’s hap­pi­ness be­cause de­spite what par­ents may say to chil­dren about un­con­di­tional love, they hear par­ents most acutely through their ac­tions.

Mes­sages of out­come love don’t shape just kids’ short-term hap­pi­ness, ei­ther.

“Sadly, th­ese mes­sages fuel men­tal health prob­lems in­clud­ing per­fec­tion­ism, fear of fail­ure, low self-es­teem, de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, not to men­tion the re­ac­tions of re­sent­ment, anger and re­jec­tion from the chil­dren to­ward the par­ents. Even more painfully, this at­ti­tude of out­come love be­comes in­ter­nal­ized and chil­dren grow up to be adults who be­rate them­selves for fail­ure and only give self-love when they suc­ceed,” Tay­lor said in the email.

Of course we are proud of our chil­dren’s suc­cesses and dis­ap­pointed in their fail­ures − we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feed­back on our par­ent­ing, so lack­ing our own re­port cards or tro­phies, it’s tempt­ing to use our chil­dren’s suc­cess as ev­i­dence of our par­ent­ing suc­cess. How­ever, claim­ing our chil­dren’s suc­cesses or fail­ures as our own cheats them out of their ex­pe­ri­ences and teaches them that our love for them is con­di­tional.

For­tu­nately, there is a sim­ple way to avoid out­come love. When par­ents fo­cus on the process of learn­ing over the rel­a­tively ar­bi­trary end prod­uct of grades and scores, we com­mu­ni­cate that we love our chil­dren un­equiv­o­cally.

Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for ex­am­ple, fo­cus dis­cus­sion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they pre­pare for the as­sess­ment or project? What might they do dif­fer­ently next time? Did they speak with the teacher to get feed­back on what worked and what did not? This fo­cus on process over prod­uct is par­tic­u­larly help­ful for highly anx­ious or per­fec­tion­ist kids who tend to get de­railed by their in­tense fo­cus on out­comes.

If we want our chil­dren to truly be­lieve us when we say our love is con­stant, that we value learn­ing more than a num­ber printed in red at the top of a test, we are go­ing to have to put our money (and our un­con­di­tional love) where our mouths are.

GETTY IM­AGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Par­ents should fo­cus on what work went into an as­sign­ment rather than the grade.

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