Fight the trophy-industrial complex

Losing is good for kids, writes Ashley Merryman in a New York Times commentary. Nonstop praise is demoralizing.

Children praised for their talents “collapse at the first experience of difficulty, according to Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor.

In other research, children were asked to draw pictures. Those who heard praise of their artistic talent were “twice as fixated on mistakes they’d made in their pictures.”

Yet the “Trophy-Industrial Complex” is now a $3 billion industry in the U.S. and Canada, she writes. Youth soccer groups spend up to 12 percent of their budget on trophies.

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

College students who’ve grown up receiving awards for “participation” think they can succeed by just showing up, says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me. That doesn’t work well in college and is even less effective in the workplace.

Parents’ job is help children cope with frustration and defeat, not pretend they’re winners when they’re not, writes Merryman. She and Po Bronson are the authors of  Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and NurtureShock.

In other words, you have to win a little, lose a little . . .

Brits: Adolescence lasts till 25

Adolescence lasts till the age of 25, British psychologists have decided.

Parents insulate their children from “real-life experience,” says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent. ”So you have this kind of cultural shift which basically means that adolescence extends into your late twenties and that can hamper you in all kinds of ways, and I think what psychology does is it inadvertently reinforces that kind of passivity and powerlessness and immaturity and normalises that.”

ADHD or narcissism?

Many children diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder may simply be slow to grow out of “normal childhood narcissism, writes psychologist Enrico Gnaulati in The Atlantic.

In the 1970s, a mere one percent of kids were considered ADHD. By the 1980s, three to five percent was the presumed rate, with steady increases into the 1990s. One eye-opening study showed that ADHD medications were being administered to as many as 17 percent of males in two school districts in southeastern Virginia in 1995.

ADHD symptoms — “problems listening, forgetfulness, distractibility, prematurely ending effortful tasks, excessive talking, fidgetiness, difficulties waiting one’s turn, and being action-oriented” — aren’t all that different from normal childhood challenges, he writes. In the past, a distractible, fidgety child would have been considered slower to mature and learn social skills. Now that child is quickly diagnosed with ADHD.

The core symptoms of ADHD resemble childhood narcissism, which is characterized by “overconfident self-appraisals, attention-craving, a sense of personal entitlement” and weak empathy for others, writes Gnaulati.

“Jonah” falls apart when he can’t master a task immediately. It could be a symptom of ADHD, writes Gnaulati. Perhaps he can’t retain the information needed. But it could be the “magical thinking” common for young children.

He believes mastering tasks should somehow be automatic—not the outcome of commitment, perseverance, and effort. Jonah’s self-esteem may also be so tenuous that it fluctuates greatly. For instance, when Jonah anticipates success, he productively cruises through work, eager to receive the recognition that he expects from parents and teachers. He is on a high. He definitely feels good about himself. But in the face of challenging work, he completely shuts down, expects failure, outside criticism, and wants to just give up.

“Parents who think their kid has ADHD often describe scenarios at home where the kid reacts to minor setbacks with bloodcurdling screams or to modest successes with over-the-top exuberance,” writes Gnaulati. For kids who really have ADHD, completing homework can be torture. But, for others, “dramatic displays of emotion are attempts to get out of tasks that warrant commitment, application, and effort.”

If parents give in, “these kids often do not acquire the emotional self-control necessary to buckle down and do academic work independently.”

I think the technical term is “spoiled brat.”

Gnaulati is the author of  Back to Normal, which is subtitled “why ordinary childhood behavior is mistaken for ADHD, bipolar disorder, and autism spectrum disorders.”

Brainy, introverted boys are over-diagnosed with autism, he writes in Salon. ”If we don’t have a firm grasp of gender differences in how young children communicate and socialize, we can mistake traditional masculine behavior for high-functioning autism.”

I can’t understand my child’s teacher

At back-to-school night for her fifth-grader, Dahlia Lithwick felt like a dummy, she writes in Slate. She couldn’t understand what the teacher was saying.

The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.

Public education has been overwhelmed by jargon, she writes. There are more acronyms – MAP and SOL and EAPE—than words.

Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Her child’s school is now “un-levelling,” parents were told. And soon it will be “fitnessgram testing.”

I checked with friends this morning to find out if I was alone in my sense that I had fallen asleep in the late 1990s and woken to a world in which I have no idea what schools even do anymore. My friend Stephanie advised me that her back to school night involved a discussion with a teacher about “interfacing with a child’s developmental space,” as well as a reference to “scaffolding text to text connections” in Ramona the Pest. My friend Laurel was told by her child’s teachers that “the children will be required to work in groups in this class, as collaboration is a 21st-century skill.”

Lithwick plans to use an education jargon generator to prep for her first teacher conference, she writes.

I tried the jargon generator. “We will generate child-centered interfaces within the core curriculum,” it suggested. “We will expedite meaning-centered paradigms across the curricular areas.” It sounds perfectly plausible. “We will aggregate interdisciplinary enrichment through cognitive disequilibrium.” Indeed.

Arts grads are in demand — as nannies

Affluent parents are hiring college graduates as nannies, writes Katy Waldman on Slate.

Fine arts diplomas are especially in-demand, because of the “level of creativity” they bring to childcare. (Whilst other nannies are gluing noodles onto construction paper, presumably, MFA grads can teach your kids how to make the latest Frank Gehry building out of play dough.) Parents also swoon for guardians who can scold their children in several languages, especially Mandarin Chinese.

The ultimate nanny has a master’s degree.

‘I will not check my son’s grades 5 times a day’

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day  vows Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic. Her son’s high school lets parents access information on their children’s academic progress, attendance and grades.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us appraised of anything we need to know.

More than 80 percent of parents and students who can access student information remotely check in “at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day,” Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, tells Lahey.

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

“We just talk to our kids,” responded Elena Marshall, mother of eight.

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings, Lahey writes.

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. -Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.”

Let’s assume that crazy parents will use the access to feed their craziness. But there are sane parents who aren’t sure how well their kids are doing in school and would appreciate a heads up before it’s too late to save the semester.

Living like it’s 1986

Blair McMillan wanted to go outside to kick a ball to his five-year-old son, but Trey didn’t want to leave dad’s iPad. Blair and girlfriend Morgan banned all post-1986 technology from their home for a year, reports the Toronto Sun. Both parents were born in 1986.

No computers, no tablets, no smart phones, no fancy coffee machines, no Internet, no cable, and – from the point of view of many tech-dependent folks – no life.

“We’re parenting our kids the same way we were parented for a year just to see what it’s like,” Blair said.

Trey and his 2-year-old brother play Super Mario on an old-school Nintendo in the basement.

Blair went through cellphone withdrawal. “I could almost feel my pocket vibrating.”

Morgan uses a computer at work. At home, she reads books. “We’re just closer, there’s more talking,” she said.

On the down side, Blair and the boys all have mullets.

Just eat the damn marshmallow

In their zeal to produce self-regulating, calm, marshmallow-postponing students, schools are failing non-conformists, writes Elizabeth Weil in The New Republic. Do we want a generation of Stepford Kids?

In the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late ’60s, nursery school kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they’d get two marshmallows later. One third were able to defer gratification. The tots with self-control went on, “or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health,” Weil writes.

Her daughter is not a marshmallow kid. In second grade at a private school, she resisted “the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.” The teacher didn’t discipline her. He recommended occupational therapy.  Teachers don’t punish, Weil writes. They “pathologize.”

She met a Seattle mother whose son was referred for testing because he had trouble sitting crossed-legged. The mother “learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing.”

Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

Punishing students for misbehavior has been “problematic” for teachers since the 1975 Goss decision, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. The Supreme Court found that schoolchildren  have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

Instead of controlling students through rewards and punishments, teachers are supposed to get students to control themselves. Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches self-regulation to produce a “good student, citizen, and worker” who won’t use drugs, fight, bully or drop out.

However, there’s no evidence SEL improves academic achievement, Weil writes. Meanwhile, as small children are expected to show more self-control, diagnoses of attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are soaring.

When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The push for self-regulation coincides with a sharp decline in measures of independent thinking, Weil writes.

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984.

Suppressing feelings is mentally draining, according to Stanford Professor James Gross, author of the Handbook of Emotional Regulation.

The federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is pushing its model for social-emotional learning, pre-empting other ideas, some educators complain.

Self-regulation and “grit” may be “lost in translation” in the classroom, writes Sarah Sparks on Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

Slate: Private school parents are bad people

“You are a bad person if you send your children to private school,” writes Allison Benedikt a trollish Slate piece. Parents who choose private school (and presumably home schooling) are putting their children’s welfare ahead of the common good, she argues.

. . .  if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.

. . . Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better.

If the local school is lousy, parents can raise money for enrichment programs and “get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job,” she writes.

If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

Benedikt went to “terrible” schools that didn’t offer advanced classes or expect students to read. Unprepared for college, she didn’t learn much there either, she writes. She hasn’t read novels or poetry, knows little about art and is fuzzy on history. But she’s “done fine” in life without all that. “Where ignorance is bliss,” after all, “tis folly to be wise.” (Thomas Gray was not a cheerful man.)

While public school didn’t provide an academic education, it taught Benedikt other things.

Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me.

I’m sold! Sign up the kids right away!

I was educated — quite well — in public schools in a suburb settled by educated and education-valuing parents, many of them Jewish. The “level 1 crowd” did not get drunk before basketball games.

I paid a premium for a house in Palo Alto so I could send my daughter to excellent public schools with the high-achieving children of highly educated parents.

The public schools were so good that the Catholic K-8 school in our neighborhood didn’t enroll a single Palo Alto child. Its students — all Latino or black — came from a nearby town with terrible schools. Their low-income and working-class parents scraped up the tuition money to give their kids a shot at a decent education. They were not bad people.

James Taranto outs himself as a very bad person: He doesn’t have children. Not only has he failed to invest his flesh-and-blood in the public schools, he’s “depriving the future United States of taxpayers . . .  hastening the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare and increasing their burden on other people’s children.”

How to praise a child

Instead of praising kids for good grades or athletic achievements, parents and teachers should praise children for acting ethically, says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.