Via Psychology Today: When to Push a Child and When Not to

We all want the best for our kids, and these days there is a growing chorus of voices telling us that this means pushing them to work harder. Just about every aspect of a child or teen’s life these days is a competition. But to excel at school, sports, the arts, spelling, debating, social media, even texting (yes, there is a US National Texting Competition), means going that little bit further than others are prepared to go.

And the difficult question – for parents and teachers alike – is knowing when it’s good for a child to be pushed and when it’s not.

Previous generations had a ready answer this question: It’s always good. The assumption was that children need to learn how to persevere if they are going to succeed in life, and no one ever said this was going to be easy. The problem, however, is that we are seeing too many kids these days that are falling by the wayside: struggling with anxiety, poor concentration, or health issues, shying away from challenges, choosing to be endlessly entertained. Is this telling us that they haven’t been pushed hard enough, or that they’ve already been pushed too hard? This is such a difficult question for parents.

With a son who grew up playing small-town hockey, I’ve met my share of hockey parents. So many of them were desperate for their child to play on a premier team. So many disappointed that their child lacked the perseverance shown by the kids who made those teams. And so many who saw their child’s poor performance as due to a lack of effort. So, they set out to push their kids to try harder. And some of them – quite a few of them – got a little carried away.

I’ve seen parents tear a strip out of their child the moment he came off the ice, and sometimes, even while he was still on. I’ve seen parents offer extravagant “rewards” to motivate their child – or for that matter, the coach. I’ve seen parents stuffing their child with candy before tryouts. And I’ve seen far too many talented young players quit the second they were old enough to have a say. But this isn’t about the perils of minor hockey, or any of the other countless areas where this is happening today (everywhere)? This is about reframing perseverance: about why we immediately jump to the conclusion that we’re dealing with is a motivation problem – and the consequences of such a mindset (reframing).

At the end of the day, hockey, like all extracurricular activities, is about a child’s wellbeing in all five of our Self-Reg domains: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial. Hard as it is for parents to admit, there are times when the activity is not that good for the child; maybe the reverse. Times when a child’s enjoyment of the game or activity languishes; when other aspects of the child’s life – school, health, social life, mood – begin to suffer.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not questioning the benefits of competition. I love what hockey has done for our son – the way it has instilled self-discipline and self-confidence. And the benefits of being on a team are incalculable. If anything, my question is how we might assist our children to realize – and when needs be, manage – their dreams. But what is far more important is to enjoy the process, and for that matter, the dream itself, should it actually come to pass. And this is where reframing comes in: understanding when perseverance turns into something vastly different, with far from salutary effects.

The difference here is between perseverance and compulsion. In terms of the “Triune Brain” metaphor, perseverance is what is referred to in Self-Reg as “Blue Brain” behaviour. Perseverance is fueled by interest and desire: we press on, despite the unpleasant feelings – fatigue, boredom, discomfort, failure – because we so badly want the goal. The key is: we choose to keep going, despite the difficulties and the setbacks. Compulsion is a Red Brain phenomenon: i.e., behaviour driven by a sub-cortical “expectation of reward.”

For neuroscientists, the latter is a function of three major factors: the positive benefits associated with a “reward” (e.g., a burst of energy, feeling soothed); incentive salience (the size of the anticipated reward); and the positive sensation produced by the “seeking” itself (i.e., by dopamine, which produces a pleasant, “energizing” sensation). In the case of compulsion, we do not choose to keep going: a “limbic prime” forces us to do so, and it dulls our awareness of the costs.

Hunger and thirst are examples of innate limbic primes: they direct behaviour so as to keep homeostatic systems running within a functional range. The processes driving us to obtain the “reward” (e.g., slake our thirst) are regulated by the hypothalamus. Someone crawling in the desert in search of water will keep going until they collapse. A “reward” in this sense is not something that one earns by one’s efforts but rather, something that causes us to keep going.

So many of the limbic primes that drive a child or teen are acquired: induced by parents, peers, educators, coaches, culture, advertisers! But no matter how much we exhort them every child reaches a point where they say: Enough! Some much earlier than others. The kid, for example, who stops skating during practice before all the others, and insists “I don’t care” if rebuked by the coach. All too often, the problem isn’t that the child isn’t motivated enough, but that he has experienced a neural shift from Blue Brain to Red Brain. Such a child isn’t guilty of not trying; his actions are constrained by limbic braking.

Limbic brakes kick in when glucose levels in the bloodstream dip below a certain threshold. In the hockey example, this might happen because of the energy the child has expended trying not to fall, stop, turn, avoid other players, keep the puck on her stick. Maybe there are other aspects of the game that she finds stressful: the fear of appearing foolish; trying to remember the rules; being yelled at by her parents in the stands.

All of these stresses burn energy: that, after all, is the defining feature of “stress.” Just wearing the equipment can be a big stress for some kids. (Think of Richard Branson’s crusade to get men to carry round a pair of scissors to cut off their neckties.) And, of course, the child might not be feeling well that day; or she might have arrived at the game late and already over-stressed; or she’s worried that she’s going to be kicked off the team.

Limbic braking is completely different from laziness or indolence. The latter are Blue Brain phenomena: i.e., the child is fully capable of going further but opts instead to quit. But in the case of limbic braking the hypothalamus – which oversees glucose levels in the bloodstream – sends an order to Cease and Desist. Stop skating! Stop working on the math problem! Stop practicing piano! This is entirely non-conscious: a primitive, sub-cortical mechanism designed to prevent excessive wear and tear. But then, limbic brakes can be over-ridden. The question is: ‘How?’ And more to the point: ‘What is the cost of doing so?’

The only way to override limbic brakes is with a sudden input of energy. This is the reason why, in popular advertising, an exhausted athlete is shown suddenly reviving with a glucose-laden drink. But sans drink in hand, the “energy kick” comes from us. We may try to “up-regulate” the child: i.e., use our own energy to give the child the needed boost. Or maybe we resort to fear or anger; for going into fight-or-flight provides the burst of energy needed to override the limbic brakes, while at the same time muting the PFC systems that subserve self-awareness.

This is the reason why we shout or threaten a child or teen when they want to give up (I’ve done it myself on occasion when my own passions were running a little too high). We do so in the hope that the child will internalize this external “motivation.” But what we are really doing is priming the child’s limbic system: i.e., programming the child to resort to fear or anger on his own to override his limbic brakes.

Children can be trained to override their limbic brakes – or, at least, some of them can, some of the time. There are “energy reserves” that serve this purpose. (Hence the rise in cortisol, which unlocks the energy contained in fat cells.) The effect of overriding limbic brakes is comparable to driving a car when the engine has gone into the red zone. The occasional redlining doesn’t harm a motor. But do this too much or go well past the rev limiter and this can cause damage.

The same is true for pushing children to override their limbic brakes too hard or too often. Do it judiciously and it might help build the child’s “stress tolerance.” Overdoing it, however, has quite a different effect.

The danger here is not only that the parasympathetic nervous system is strained and recovery is compromised, but that the child will come to have strong negative associations with the activity in question. Read through the memoirs of individuals who have succeeded because they were compelled (first by others and then by themselves) and what comes through loud and clear is how much they came to hate the activity in which they ultimately excelled. (The beginning of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, is a striking case in point [Agassi].) This is an aspect of the debate over perseverance that rarely gets mentioned, but it should.

The point here, however, is not that parents are confronted with a difficult decision in regards to their child’s future: viz., success-at-a-cost versus failure-at-a-different-cost. The whole point of reframing perseverance is that it presents us with a very different dichotomy: viz., between compulsion and flow [Flow]. Where compulsion is a Red Brain phenomenon, flow is Blue Brain.

Where compulsion is exhausting, flow is energizing. The former is dogged, the latter creative. The former leaves you shattered and disillusioned, the latter, calm and inspired.

The concept of flow is tied to the concepts of absorption, euphoria, and most important of all, effortlessness. What it is not tied to is success. Both compulsion and flow involve a loss of any sense of space and time; both are tied to a dissociation of sorts. But the motivation for flow comes, not from the lure of status or prestige, but the joy of the experience itself. One does not strive for flow in order to obtain a reward; flow is its own reward. And there is a flow to flow itself, which is where Self-Reg comes in.

The great American biopsychologist Robert Thayer discovered that motivation naturally varies according to one’s energy and tension level [Thayer]). We are most motivated to obtain a goal when our energy is high and tension is low (HE/LT); least motivated when energy is low and tension is high (LE/HT). What this means is that we try harder, for longer, and feel more positive when we’re in HE/LT. In which case, the better we can help children recognize when and why they are slipping into LE/HT, and what they need to do to restore, the better they can return to a flow state.

One of the finer aspects of parenting and teaching is knowing when you’re dealing with a child who needs encouragement and when it’s a case of limbic braking: i.e., a situation in which gentle yet firm support is not going to keep the child going, and pushing too hard is going to send them into Red Brain.

But where Self-Reg is especially important is not just in recognizing limbic braking for what it is, but helping us to recognize the onset of limbic braking before it occurs: e.g., in a child’s voice, eyes, posture, movement. And eventually, helping the child or teen learn how to do the same.

The upshot of this reframing is that we need to distinguish between what we want for kids and what we’re prepared to inflict on them. Or what is worse still, what we seek to prime kids to inflict on themselves. That must never be our goal as parents or educators. Our goal should be that children love hockey at the end of the season as much as at the beginning. Constantly pushing them to override their limbic brakes – because of the antiquated and misguided assumption that this builds character – is the surest way there is to prevent them from experiencing flow in whatever captures their interest and imagination.

Via Smart Parenting: What a Famous Psychologist Told Us About Raising Smart and Happy Kids

Dr. Peter Gray, a world acclaimed evolutionary psychologist, was a panelist in a forum when he was asked why play was important. He answered, “Because it makes children happy.” He was ignored for the rest of the discussion. In a succeeding forum, he was again asked the same question. This time, he responded differently: “Because it’s how children learn.” It got him more speaking time to elaborate on the developmental benefits of play.

The above goes to show that when it comes to matters about children, one will only get a room’s avid attention when you talk about how to make children smart, rather than happy. But child development experts like Dr. Gray wants us to remember that our kids learn the most when our little ones are happy.

We got the opportunity to catch Dr. Gray speak after asked me to attend the Jumpstart 2017 Early Leadership Symposium. It was organized by Rethasia International and Miriam College and held at the Henry Sy Sr. Innovation Center in Miriam College.

Dr. Peter Gray, who is a research professor at Boston College, author of the book Free to Learn, and writer for the blog “Freedom to Learn” for Psychology Today, speaks passionately about the need for children to play. He backs it up by citing studies he conducted with his colleagues and other researchers.

There was so much process to process after his talk. But here are three main takeaways I feel he would like all parents to know.

#1 Let kids learn how to explore and entertain themselves

Dr. Gray prescribes “self-directed play” where children can choose what to do during play time. Play-based schools who promote self-directed play give their students the chance to freely explore the classroom with subjects like Dramatics Play, Blocks, Science, Math & Manipulatives, Reading, Art & Writing. Here, they engage and learn to resolve social conflicts, craft artworks or stories for fun, or figure out how to solve the structural problems of a spaceship they made or complete a puzzle.

At home, he advises parents to let children play independently as well as with other children. Having the time to join others in playgrounds or playgroups has countless benefits, especially when they can choose their games and make up the rules.

Gray had also emphasized that imagination is developed through self-directed play. Children need the chance to create stories, build castles, experiment with water, sculpt clay figures, read about things that interests them, or play dress up. All these develop their creative side, a quality that is not only important among artists, but all industry leaders who are looking for individuals who can think out of the box and come up with novel and unique ideas.

#2 Academic skills is good, but another set of skills that may be better

Parents who are overly concerned about their children’s intelligence should, according to Gray, learn the difference between academic and intellectual abilities. The former can be taught in schools “using demonstration, recitation, memorization and repeated practice.” The latter has to do with “reasoning, hypothesizing, exploring, and understanding.” Intellectual abilities are mainly developed by the child through self-initiated activities. Parents can help by providing nurturing environments, like when we read to children or play games that involve numbers and measuring. But for intellectual abilities to truly develop, children need to be happily engaged and motivated.

Gray believes that for our kids to become successful and happy adults, we need to focus on the intellectual rather than the academic skills. He also warns focusing on academic skills can negatively affect the development of a child’s intellectual skills. It puts on a lot pressure for children who have difficulty with memorization tasks and are shamed into thinking they are slow or stupid. These kids begin to think there is something wrong with them and begin to withdraw, give up or misbehave.

Source: iStock

#3 Parents need to create an environment where their kids can play

It’s not only in school that children are having less time to play. Thanks to homework, extra-curricular activities, safety and health fears of parents, and lack of accessible neighborhood play spaces, children are not playing together as much anymore.

Over the years, we’ve been seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. Narcissism is on the rise, because people are missing the chance to develop empathy. Children aren’t filling up neighborhood parks anymore and missing out on inventing games and rules of play that are fun, creative and fair. They have less and less opportunities to learn how to win and lose gracefully. Specialists are correlating the rise in depression to the decline in play and happiness in childhood.

We, grown-ups, know how play makes us feel. We’re aware of how it ignites our interests in things that we will pursue with a passion. In my experience as a teacher, I have had students who made glorious messes in the art area, and they turned out to be artists who will sell their beautiful work. I had a student who loved being a Power Ranger and is now a US Marine. I had two little girls who always played with animals and plants and grew up to study Environmental Science.

With play, children have the chance to ignite a spark that will fuel them to do something meaningful and satisfying with their lives. Why would we, as a society, consciously deprive our children of play – of the chance to be happy while they are young and lead satisfying lives as adults?
At the start of the day, Dr. Gray told us to be skeptical about whatever he said. “You don’t have to take everything I say at face value…Question it.”

While we question Dr. Gray’s teachings, let’s also question ourselves. We all want what is best for our children, but what is more important to us, for our children to be happy and smart or to be school smart? If we sat in a room and were told how play makes our children happy, would we care? Or would we only tune in when the speaker starts to tell us how we can make our children smarter?

Via Becoming Unbusy: 10 Benefits Kids Gain From An UnBusy Life

Take life at the pace that suits you & your family.

I sit with feet stretched out in front of me, bark chips in my sandals and the sound of playful children in my ears.

It’s been twenty minutes since school got out, and already it’s only my three kids and a few others left on the playground.

When a public park sits right in between your elementary school and the parking lot, you have a prime opportunity for people watching. Five days a week.

Every day I watch as parents gently prod their children past the park, their kids throwing longing looks over their shoulders. (Swings must look exhilarating when you’re five years old and headed for a booster seat in a dark SUV.)

Plenty of parents let their kids burn off some energy before heading on, and some stay long enough for their kids to get immersed in a game of tag while they chat with fellow parents.

That said, not many of them linger past the half-hour mark; they have places to go.

But a lot of days, I stay, my feet planted in the bark chips as I push a soaring child on the swings or cheer another one across the monkey bars.

We have time to linger. We’ve got no reason to hurry.

Maybe you’re the same kind of parent, soaking in the sun at a park five states away from me. Or maybe you tend to keep a full schedule and are curious about doing life and parenthood another way.

I believe everyone should take life at the pace that suits them, and the pace that happens to suit my family is a slow, purposeful one. If you too would like to embrace an un-hurried life, here are ten benefits I’ve noticed in my own kids from living at the pace we enjoy.

10 Benefits Kids Gain from an UnBusy Life

1. They have more time for unstructured play, more time to tinker.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. — Fred Rogers

2. They spend more time in nature than busy kids.

I want my children to know nature—to feel the crunch of dried pine needles under their shoes, to take in the view from the upper branches of a tree—so that they can grow to love it. For us, that simply means making the time to get outdoors.

3. They have time to follow their curiosity.

4. They are less entitled.

I’ll be the first to tell you that our family fights entitlement in other places; I think all parents do. But my kids don’t expect to be signed up for the next sports season before the current one even ends. Expensive art classes or private music lessons aren’t on their radar. In this sense, their entitlement meter is blessedly low.

5. They have less agitated parents.

When we rush our children from one activity to the next, we sacrifice the ability to be in the moment. Worry and agitation build. A slower lifestyle often translates to calmer parents and calmer kids, and I think calm and content parents is one of the greatest gifts we can give our families.

6. They sleep better.

A brain that is firing from one thing to another has a harder time settling into deep sleep. Children included.

7. They’re familiar with boredom.

You’ve seen it, right? Boredom carves out this amazing space where kids can draw on their own resources and get creative with their time. Plus, kids who are familiar with boredom often develop rich inner lives.

And someday, they will be excellent at waiting to grab their luggage and de-plane.

8. They’re free for playdates, any time.

How rare is that these days?

9. They don’t feel rushed to grow up.

With fewer outside influences in their lives, kids can remain kids just a bit longer.

10. They come to value simple living.

Someday in the not-too-distant future, my kids may start asking for more activities, more lessons, more museum trips, more social engagements. And when they do, I’ll follow their lead—but with caution. I know myself and my kids, and I’m more than willing to set up boundaries that allow us plenty of downtime, plenty of white space for our souls.

My hope is that when they’re grown, they’ll remember dozens of afternoons at the park across the street and hundreds of evenings with toy lightsabers, pink scooters, and neighborhood friends out on our front lawn.

They’ll remember complaining to their mom about being bored and then finally giving up and getting lost in the world of Harry Potter on the top bunk.

They’ll know that their mom did her best to find a pace that suited her—and them.

And they’ll build lives of their own, with an awareness that pace and contentedness go hand in hand.

Notes from MOMmy:

Interesting article. Let’s raise our kids to have a growth mindset.

Via Inc: Want to Raise Successful Kids? Science Says Praise Them Like This (but Most Parents Do the Opposite)

What if I were to tell you that you could increase the odds that your kids will achieve great success in life–maybe greater success than you’ve had–simply by making a small change in how you praise them and talk about achievement?

It turns out, you can. What’s more, this change flies in the face of almost everything we’ve been told by so-called experts about raising successful kids–at least for the past 15 years or more.

It’s all about how we praise our kids for their accomplishments. An emerging and exciting body of research on the subject suggests several key things we might not have realized otherwise:

  1. Praising kids merely for their innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
  2. Praising kids instead for the strategies and processes they develop to solve problems–even when they don’t fully succeed–makes them more likely to try harder and ultimately achieve.
  3. And–perhaps the kicker–the effects of these praise strategies can be quantified even when we’re talking about children as young as 1 to 3 years of age. (So once again, my 15-month-old daughter will get the benefit of something I’ve learned while writing for Inc.!)

As you might imagine, this would mean that the so-called experts who told us to praise our kids endlessly (part of the “everyone gets a participation trophy” movement) were dead wrong. (I’ve written a lot this subject at Inc. and put together a free e-book: How to Raise Successful Kids.)

How does it all work? We’ll talk below about two studies involving school-age children, both led by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. First, however, let’s examine the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, which underlies the whole thing.

Fixed vs. growth mindset

This is really what this research is all about–teaching kids to develop growth mindsets rather than fixed mindsets.

When it comes to beliefs about human achievement, a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence, for example, is almost entirely innate. Either you’re born with great smarts and the ability to achieve, or you’re not.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that achievement (again, for our purposes in the intellectual realm) is much more variable, and that intelligence and problem-solving abilities can be developed over time.

You might summarize the whole thing by thinking of Albert Einstein, Dweck suggests. A person with a fixed mindset might say, “Einstein was brilliant.” A person with a growth mindset might observe that Einstein solved some incredibly difficult problems.

As for teaching growth mindsets, writer Angie Aker summarized Dweck’s work and put it like this on Upworthy: “Praise your child explicitly for how capable they are of learning rather than telling them how smart they are.”

The seventh-graders

Back to Dweck’s research. A few years ago, she and her team took 373 middle school students, and identified those who exhibited fixed mindsets and those who exhibited growth mindsets.

Then, the followed them for two years–from the start of seventh grade to the end of eighth grade. The dichotomy was stark.

“By the end of the first term, their grades jumped apart and continued to diverge over the next two years. The only thing that differed was their mindsets,” Dweck said in a video. As you might expect, the ones who exhibited growth mindsets achieved more than their classmates who had fixed mindsets.

Dweck said she has identified several key differences between the two types of students.

1. Goals

Students with a fixed mindset had one goal in mind: “Look smart at all times and at all costs.” That meant they worked to avoid any task that might show they weren’t as smart as they thought they were.

Students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, didn’t care if their mistakes were revealed to their peers; they saw this as inevitable and nothing to be ashamed of, because their goal was to “learn at all times and at all costs.”

2. Attitudes toward effort and failure

Students with a fixed mindset viewed effort and failure as bad things, because the mere fact that someone worked hard or came up short demonstrated (to them) that the person didn’t have innate ability. Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, believed that effort was what was required to unlock ability.

Dweck says the notion that effort is a bad thing “is one of the worst beliefs that anyone can have.”

3. Boredom and difficulty

Students who demonstrated a fixed mindset were far more likely to complain of being bored in school, Dweck found. They seemed to get into a cycle in which they used boredom as a cover to suggest why they wouldn’t try things that they found difficult; in the process they actually became bored.

Growth-mindset students, on the other hand, looked at schoolwork as a series of challenges and puzzles to figure out. They were also less likely to complain that a teacher, or a course, or another external factor, was responsible if they had difficulty.

The 11-year-olds

All of this is great, but if you’re a parent, you likely want to explore not just why a growth mindset is advantageous, but also how to encourage your kids to develop that kind of attitude. Fortunately, Dweck has a study for that, too.

She and her team divided a group of 11-year-olds into three groups, and gave each of them a fairly easy but age-appropriate intelligence test. At the end, they praised each of the kids in one of three ways:

  • They praised one group for their innate intelligence
  • They praised one group for the processes they came up with to solve the test
  • They praised a third group, as a control, for a passing score, without mentioning either their intelligence or the process they had used.

Results? The first part won’t surprise you. Praising their intelligence put kids into a fixed mindset. Praising their effort and process, on the other hand, pushed them into a growth mindset.

But Dweck said things actually went further: “The most astonishing thing to us was that praising intelligence turned kids off to learning.”

The babies and a few examples

So, how early is too early to start praising strategies and processes over innate ability? Very early, according to Dweck. In fact, her research shows that the way mothers praise babies as young as 1 to 3 years in age can predict the child’s “mindset and desire for challenge five years later.”

(Dweck says that after conducting her research, she’s been known to interrupt moms she’s seen in airports telling their babies that they’re geniuses.)

So what should you do instead? Here are a couple of ideas. Instead of praising a child for solving a puzzle or accomplishing an easy goal, Dweck suggests saying something like, “I’m sorry I wasted your time. Let’s do something hard–something you can learn from.”

Or, instead of asking your kids at dinner how school was today, go around the table and ask everyone to share a story of how they struggled with something. (You have to share, too!)