I’ve heard it said that parenting is a lot like surfing. One moment we can be in the midst of serene, calm waters, peacefully floating in the sea of harmony; the next we are immersed in an enormous riptide, trying desperately to keep our heads above water. I’ve actually never been surfing, but this sounds about right. If you are a parent reading this, you know all too well the ebb and flow of the parenting journey.
While there are many facets to parenting, one of my goals is to empower parents with regard to their child’s education. As you know, so much has changed from the time we were students. Whether it’s the presence of alternative schooling options (charter, private, online) or the advent of the internet, the landscape of education is vastly different.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the intense focus on standardized testing and the almighty letter grade. While there are certainly benefits of these tests, I can’t help but think of one particular cost that is plaguing students nationwide. In our quest to “Race To The Top”, we are focusing more on the result than we are the process.
Several weeks ago my six-year-old daughter brought home her first ever spelling test. Throughout the week leading up to the test, my wife and I each spent time helping her to prepare. Whether it was spelling the words out loud or writing them on a whiteboard we have in the office, our goal was to teach her the core values of practice, persistence, and effort. When I opened her folder on Friday afternoon, the first thing I saw was her spelling test. In big blue numbers at the top of the page, I saw her score, a perfect 10/10. Of course I was filled with pride, but I had to catch myself as the first thing I wanted to say was, “You’re so smart.”
Herein lies the single most important piece of advice I could give to parents with regard to their child’s education – praise the process, not the result. Let me explain by sharing two different parent responses to the same circumstance, a perfect score on a test.
Response #1 – Praising the result.
“Wow, Emerson! You are so smart. You got 100%”
Remember earlier when I said our goal was to teach her the core values of practice, persistence, and effort? What we often fail to recognize as parents is that our children are “meaning making machines”, just like we are. In other words, they interpret everything we say according to a specific lens.
In this case, it would be normal for Emerson to interpret my statement as – Daddy is proud of me because of my grade.
As she continues to take tests, her obvious goal is to achieve a good grade, which would support the notion that she is smart. Keeping with this interpretation, if she were to someday receive a score of 5/10, she would automatically assume that she isn’t smart. As this pattern progresses, she may avoid taking academic risks in the future for fear of failure.
Response #2 – Praising the process.
“Wow, Emerson! I’m so proud of the hard work and persistence you showed this week.”
Notice how I didn’t say anything about the grade. Why? Because I don’t want her to associate the word smart with a number or letter grade. I want her to celebrate the process (or journey) that led to her success.
Now her interpretation might be – Daddy is proud of me because of my hard work.
Let’s imagine that she scored a 5/10 on the very next test. Instead of highlighting the result and belaboring the fact that she had failed, I could focus on the process, which is how she studied during the week. Believe it or not, there is tremendous power in allowing your child to fail. I’m not just talking about an “F” on a report card; I’m also referring to general mistakes. The key, however, is not to highlight the failure, but to point out the various core values that can be used moving forward.
I invite you to read a powerful article by Salmon Kahn, founder of the wildly popular Kahn Academy, which describes the reasoning behind his vow to NEVER tell his child that he is smart (click here).