Saturday, April 11, 2015
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor -- still true and confirmed by a recent Gallup Study
REDEFINE SUCCESS FOR KIDS
BERKELEY, CALIF. — I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.
Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.
I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist.
Gallup just published a study confirming the issues described in this article published 10 years ago in the Christian Science Monitor. It's more about how you go to college rather than where.
College admissions capitalizing on worry?
In a country whose economy depends to a great degree on hype, it's not surprising that school grades have been swept into the mix. There's been concern about grade inflation - students getting better grades than the same work might have earned years ago. But my concern is due to the inflation and hype over the importance of grades in education these days.
Many young people are in the midst of college application mania or are waiting for news from their chosen colleges. And I have been a resentful participant in this mania, during my son's critical junior year, the year in which students need to achieve a certain grade point average and set of SAT scores for many colleges.I have felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at my son's heels to get him to take care of every little step in this questionable process.
I know there are many students who have their own panic attacks and stress reactions. In our house I seemed to be having them for my son. On the other hand, I know of households in which the craziness is a family affair.
Being able to make us worry seems to be the mark of success for any modern advertising campaign: worry about thinning hair, indigestion, and emerging wrinkles. If we don't worry, we don't buy. We are made to worry, so that all the SAT preparation programs will have customers. So that colleges can have so many applicants that they can reject more and advertise how selective they are.
My son and I once discussed this issue, and his perspective was, "High school seems to be about grades; college is about learning."
Unfortunately, I can see why he might draw that conclusion. He has had some good teachers in high school and has learned some content. But he has also learned to focus more on classes where the grade is most important for college admission, and to focus less on classes where the content may be valuable but is less critical for college admission. What is lost in this process is hard to measure.
Some of the things that make him a fine person and a great candidate for college are not ones you get grades for. Otherwise, he'd get an "A" for navigating a huge, diverse high school and making friends in every group. An "A" for occasionally stepping in to protect another student in a way that helped to resolve a conflict. An "A" for bouncing back from disappointments. An "A" for practicing daily with a football team on which he knew he would probably never get playing time. An "A" for optimism and enthusiasm. An "A" for common sense and good judgment. And most important - an "A" for patience with his mother as she struggles - not always calmly - to help him deal with a very flawed system.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor. A recent trip to a produce market reminded me to post this.
My random acts of kindness versus talk-radio-type rudeness
In my neighborhood, I've found that even small gestures have made a big difference.
BERKELEY, CALIF. — This fall's trio of outbursts (from Rep. Joe Wilson, singer Kanye West, and tennis star Serena Williams) brought the topic of civility front and center.
Like bad weather, everyone complains about rude behavior. But unlike bad weather, we can actually do something about it. Right?
I have started a small-scale experiment to see if one person can change the public tone.
My proving ground is a popular produce market in my neighborhood. You might think it would attract a lot of people seeking health and harmony.
Not so much. A grumpier, more sour crowd would be hard to find. Maybe it's the narrow aisles or the limited parking, but the people who shop there are often very cranky.
So as a quiet mission I sometimes see if I can turn the tide just a little during my regular shopping trips. It makes the long lines and narrow aisles more tolerable when I have this secondary mission.
I start with simply trying to keep a pleasant expression. I give other shopping carts the right of way. And I offer sincere compliments.
One day I told an older lady how much I admired her beautiful white hair. Her big smile and "Oh my gosh, you made my day" response reminded me how little it takes.
This small exchange transformed the tone of each of our trips to the market. This type of change is possible in almost any setting, and with remarkably small gestures. Even if I haven't been able to spread mass goodwill, at least I am not part of the problem.
What does it say about our society when the considerate, polite gestures have become out of the ordinary? We have become too casual with our own manners. If more of us were doing things, even small things, to sweeten the social stew, those people who are bitter or sour would stand out as unnatural more. And that could encourage more polite behavior.
Some people say that good manners render one less competitive in the workforce. On the contrary, there is great power in good manners. Even teaching small children how to use "please" and "thank you," along with other little habits, will open opportunity and instill a pattern into adulthood.
As a psychologist, I have worked in communities where social skills and the ability to reframe a potential conflict can be life saving factors for youngsters. But even when it isn't a matter of life and death, the ability and willingness to express respect can make our own lives much better.
I admit it is disappointing when courtesy is met with an entitled response – or no response. There are times when driving that I'll stop or pull over to let another car pass, and get nothing – no acknowledgment from the other driver. It makes me want to yell at the top of my lungs, in the most sarcastic way I can "You're welcome!" (OK, I have done that a few times). But that kind of response accomplishes little. What do I gain? It certainly doesn't make me feel like a winner.
When my son was a teenager, he liked to dress as though he had just lost a hundred pounds and hadn't bothered to buy new clothes. One day, he and I were crossing the street together and a driver waiting for us pointed to him and made a rude gesture.
Instead of what might have been the automatic response, I put my arm around my goofy looking son as if I were the proudest mom in town and gave the thumbs up sign to the driver.
That counterintuitive response helped reframe the situation, and rather than leave a bitter taste, it felt good. The driver's confused expression was a satisfying reaction. And it helped my son see the power of a little good.
There's a church song that goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." Maybe we need a new version: "Let there be civility on earth, and let it begin with me."
Many people are ready to be part of something positive. Small actions repeated do make a difference. We can start today.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.