I had a parent once approach me with the following:

“My daughter has never failed at anything.  She’s extremely bright; everything seems easy to her.   I worry about what will happen when she takes more challenging classes.  How will she handle it if she finds something that is not so easy for her?

Eventually this mother revealed that she could see herself in her daughter.  She also was a straight-A student in the early grades, but when she reached Chemistry and Trigonometry classes in high school, she was met with extreme discomfort.  Instead of persisting, trying to get help with these subjects, admitting to her parents and teachers that she was struggling, she stopped trying.  She was in the midst of an identity crisis.  She had always been known as “The Brain,” and could succeed at everything she tried.  Now she questioned herself..  What’s going on?  Maybe I’m actually NOT smart!  Her solution was to drop the difficult classes, identify with students who were not so bright, put up a new face that said:  I’m done with all that high-achieving stuff.  That’s for the egg-heads.  I just want to do the bare minimum and then go out with friends.

On further discussion, the mother said that her parents had made such a big deal of her being “smart.”  When she learned to read at an early age, her parents had her read for relatives and friends who came to visit.  Everyone exclaimed about her smart she was.  This became her identifying label.

It would have served her better if her parents had simply enjoyed her reading with her.  She must have felt a growing sense of competence, as with accomplishing whistling or snapping her fingers!  Her parents might have said, “You can read a lot of words all by yourself now.  It looks like you really like to read.  Is that right?”

When we assign the labels “smart,” or “bright,” to a child when she is successful we are saying, “Because you can do this, you are smart.”  When the child encounters a more challenging task, it just stands to reason that she might say, “Because I can’t do this, I am NOT SMART.”  This is what Martin Seligman (The Optimistic Child) calls a “stable attribution“.

If we think of “smartness” as stable, that means it doesn’t change.   It is a characteristic that remains in us, not malleable.

If, however, we attribute our accomplishments to conditions that are malleable, our whole outlook changes.  We remain in control of how well we perform.

Suppose 4-year-old Jack is reading along and comes to the word “traffic.”  The “tr” blend and the length of the word make this one a challenge for him.  If he has often been evaluated for his reading ability (e.g., “You are so smart!”) he might fear how he will now be evaluated (Yes, they pick up on this evaluation thing pretty quickly!).  But if the parent is sitting beside him, just noticing Jack’s own feelings of competence, the evaluation doesn’t come into play.  It might go as follows:

Jack:  I don’t know this word.

Mom:  Wow.  That’s a new one for you.  And it’s tricky.  Let’s sound it out together.

Later, Mom might later share with Dad, in Jack’s presence, “We found a new word today in Jack’s book on trucks.  It was a hard one, ‘traffic.’  We had to work at that one, so we sounded it out together and then Jack went on reading.

Again, a common thread this week is the importance of our interpretation of successes and failures.  Our children will follow our lead.

See if you can pay attention to your own attributions and the labels you might give to your child.  Are you aware of any?  Please share!

Last edited May 22nd 2011

Just a pretty bracelet?

The front-page headline in a local Cork paper caught my eye.

‘Controversial Bracelets banned at Fermoy schools’  (‘The Avondhu’ Thursday Sep 23, 2010)

The photo showed cute, colourful bracelets like any little girl might be wearing.  There are the playground crazes, but this is not as innocuous as marbles or card swapping.  The name rings the warning bells – ‘sh*g bands’.

Apparently the colours are a code language, and the wearer is expected to give that favour to someone who breaks that band off your arm.  Each colour represents a physical act of a sexual nature – and we’re not just talking ‘I’ll show you yours if you show me mine.’ Parents are worried that young children, who aren’t comprehending what it’s all about,  don’t want to be left out.

How does a parent respond?  An outright ban?  But they’re going to be so easy to get hold of – just little plastic bangles!

Talk to the child? I hear parents say, ‘But she won’t listen to me!’

The difference lies in talking WITH your child rather than talking TO.

But how? This is where a Coaching Approach to Parenting can give you hugely helpful tools.

It’s about building connection and communication.

When children sense that we are coming in only with our own agenda, they sense our motivation as being one of ‘attack’.   In return they’re likely to get defensive, aggressive or go ‘underground’ with their behaviour.

What helps?  Find the time and space to listen to her experience.

Think of yourself crossing the bridge into her world.  When you choose to ‘visit’ her world of experience and see life from her perspective, you’ll gain valuable insights into how she sees this.

Last edited September 27th 2010

Johnny’s freckled face frowns with concentration.

His wet tongue protrudes slightly in the corner of his mouth.

His fingers carefully move the little red Lego block into position.

Almost finished!

His thumb and third finger hold the smooth angular surfaces upright.

He eases it into position on the roof.

He’s nearly made the car.

Johnny gives a small grin.

He’ll show dad he did it all by himself.

He presses downward on the nobbly top surface of the block.

Ker-ack!

Johnny stares in dismay. His beautiful car!

Smithereens – shiny red, blue and white blocks scattered on the floor.

The little black wheels spin upside down.

‘My car!’ he wails.

The cheerful blocks swim in a brown sea as his eyes fill with disappointed tears.

Dad’s arm is gently on his back. He kneels down.

‘You took so long building your car and then it broke.  You’re feeling really upset about that?’

Johnny nods. Gulps. The tears bubble out.

Johnny burrows his wet face into Dad’s comforting shoulder.

Daddy’s here. He understands.

In sharing this story with me the parent reflects,

‘Before learning about a coaching approach to parenting I would have said something like,

“Oh it’s okay. We can build it again. Don’t get upset.”

Now I stay present to what he is experiencing.

I know that Johnny “felt felt”.

And once he’d cried out his disappointment he set to and rebuilt his car.

The connection between us was really great.’

What’s your response when your child experiences disappointment?

What’s  helpful to ensure your child ‘feels felt’?

Last edited April 14th 2010