When I started teaching English ten years ago (how did that happen??), I noticed that kids seemed different than when I was in high school. Considering that I was 23 when I started teaching, I had only been out of high school for five years. I was perplexed, What do you mean you didn’t do your homework again? What did you think was going to happen when you cut class? If you came to extra help even once a week, your grades would improve – just show up! After a while I realized, yes, kids were maybe a little different, but really I was being exposed to a different type of student. From a young age, I loved school and learning; I took mostly AP and Honors classes in high school and that skewed my picture of the average teenager. Even though there were probably tons of kids cutting class, not doing homework, or totally flaking, I didn’t see them.
Fast forward through those ten years of teaching, and I started to notice two habits among all ranges of kids, from the ones struggling to pass, to the AP students. First, a constant need to check in and seek approval. I often give kids time to write in class and nearly every student would ask at least once during the period, “Can you read this and tell me if it’s ok?” On the one hand, it’s commendable that the kids want to do well. They want to know that they’re on the right track and accomplishing the task at hand. On the other hand, hearing, “Is this good?” twenty or thirty times over the course of a period is enough to make your head spin. The reality is maybe it’s not good, but you need to keep going anyway and if it stinks, you’ll have to spend time revising and improving.
The other habit is an inability to progress to the next step, or sometimes to even get started. Everyone encounters writer’s block sometimes, but what I’m referring to is more systemic. “Ok, I did what you said. Now what do I do?” Often the answer is on the board, in their notes, or on a worksheet. When it’s not, it’s because I want them to figure it out. For a long time, I chalked this up to laziness. And I hear this sentiment all the time, “Kids today are lazy; they don’t want to work.” Are some kids lazy? Sure, but so are plenty of adults. It’s less about laziness and more about an inability to think for themselves. Or in some cases, maybe it’s an impatience. Raised in an era of instant everything, they don’t have the patience to think.
What do I think is the culprit behind all this? It’s Mommy and Me art.
Ok so it’s actually something I observed at Mommy and Me art. A few months ago I signed Nolan up for an art class (I use that term loosely) at a local kids’ art studio. Nolan LOVES sports and spends a ton of time being active, and I thought this would be a nice change of pace. Each class starts with some time for the kids to play, then the teacher reads a story and demonstrates the project they will work on. Then the kids go to their easels and get cracking. The first project involved sticking colored strips of tape to their papers and then painting.
During that first class I parked myself on a bench across the room and pushed Will’s stroller back and forth, hoping he would snooze. The other moms stood or sat beside their kids and spent the next 20 minutes saying things like:
Let’s fix this tape.
Why don’t you put the tape here?
Put some yellow at the top.
Put the tape like this.
Paint the blue on the bottom.
Fill in this spot here.
Aaaaaaaaand therein lies our problem. Fast forward ten years and put those kids in ninth grade and what do you get? Is this good? Can you check this? Now what do I do? What should I do next? I don’t know what to do.
I am confident that these moms were not trying to make museum-worthy masterpieces or get their kids into Parsons. Although I’m probably sounding ultra-judgmental at this point, I really don’t mean to be. These were lovely, friendly moms who were probably trying to play with their children. I think as parents we sometimes can’t help ourselves. I don’t know if we’re bored, or uncomfortable with silence, or afraid our little ones are going to feel sad, but we can’t shut up. I catch myself doing it too and have to make a conscious effort to zip it sometimes.
There has been a lot of buzz in recent years over the “right” way to praise kids. Much of that buzz stems from Po Bronson’s 2007 New York Magazine article, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.” A few years later, the essay became the first chapter of the book NurtureShock (which is a really interesting and fast read!). The school of thought behind most of the writing about this is that instead of empty praise (Good job! Great!) or praising the end result (I’m so proud you got an A!), it’s more effective to praise the process or actual task (I’m so proud of how hard you studied! You shared so nicely!). While I agree with them 100%, I think for a lot of parents and caregivers, it’s not just the words they’re using, it’s the frequency. I’m not exaggerating when I say I must have heard “Good job” 40 times during that one-hour art class.
So how about we stop talking so much? I’m not saying withhold all praise, but is getting your cereal out of the cabinet really worthy of a compliment? A year after being potty-trained, is every pee deserving of celebratory clapping? I want my kids to follow instructions not because I’m always going to praise them for it, but because it feels good to do the right thing or accomplish a task. And most importantly, let your kids paint their own pictures.