Tuesday, January 14, 2014

what if you're doing it wrong?

I've always hated "list" posts.  They tell you the 5 best of this or the 8 worst of that.  They often claim to solve problems from how to lose weight to how to save a marriage to how to ask for a raise.  I usually find they over-simplify or generalize to the point of being useless.

With that rather negative introduction, I ask you to consider the following post, Six of the best: the traits your child needs to succeed.

In it the author proceeds to list and describe the six qualities that children need to be successful in school. 

1. Joie de vivre
2. Resilience
3. Self-discipline
4. Honesty

5. Courage
6. Kindness

Hillary Wilce concludes the post with the following: 
"Our children badly need us to help them develop stronger, more flexible backbones, and all the qualities that contribute to a strong inner core can be actively fostered and encouraged by parents (parents and schools working together is even better). Just as muscles grow stronger with regular exercise, so character traits are strengthened by thoughtful encouragement and reinforcement."

I'm trying to set aside the fact that there is no discussion of the relationship that these traits have with success in school.  Do these traits cause kids to be successful?  Does success in school provide the exercise to strengthen these traits?  Or do these traits and success in school happen together, both enhanced by any number of additional, unexplored factors ranging from genetics to family income to who knows what?

What I really want to know is what you think about the very idea of fostering traits in children.  Do you think it is even possible to "build" a child with these traits?  What role do parents and schools play in creating these "super" children?

I ask because as a parent of two sons who could not be more different, I have to wonder what I did that made them so.  As a teacher of literally thousands of students whose accomplishments range from incredible success to dismal failure, I have to ask what I and their parents did to foster the disparate range of traits that resulted. 

It's not that I don't think there's a level of responsibility inherent in teaching or in parenting.  There is tremendous responsibility in both jobs and the article is happy to list those things parents believe are the schools' and teachers' jobs, items like "well-run lessons, skilled teachers, a creative curriculum, high expectations."  But as I watch parents beat themselves up because they're too tired to make every meal perfectly nutritious and teachers give up in despair because their students can't pass the state exams, I think we need to ask ourselves if articles like this aren't really just a set up. 

Do parents (and teachers) really have the ability to create kids that possess joie de vivre, resilience, self-discipline, honesty, courage, and kindness?  Are there really parents (or teachers) out there actively discouraging these traits? 

If we are to believe articles like this and take a look at the children of the world, we are forced to come to the conclusion that most kids do not have all these traits.  And if your own children, wonderful as they are, are among those that do not exhibit these traits, then this means that someone, everyone, or perhaps just you, are doing "it" wrong. 


  1. After reading your blog today, I did a brief literature search on genetics and personality and found an article that made a statement about how society/parents foster knowledge versus personality.
    'Intelligence is a directional trait; in general it is always good to have more of it, and parents invest extraordinary resources in the cognitive abilities of their children. One of the most important social institutions in modern civilization—the educational system—is dedicated to increasing cognitive ability in children, and varies mostly at the level of families (i.e., children raised in the same family are usually exposed to the same schools). Personality traits, in contrast, are bidirectional, with positive and negative traits at both ends, and there is nothing analogous to the educational system dedicated to changing them.' (Turkheimer et al. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2014. 65:515–40)
    The author in the article you quote assumes that all children can be the same and that the education system, along with parents, can somehow help to ensure all children will acquire those traits. Firstly, she is forgetting that most personality traits are genetic and without significant amounts of environmental/mental alteration, people will become what their genetics program them to be. Secondly, she is assuming the education system is the place for training students to have better personalities. As it currently stands, that system is not set up to deal with that added level of responsibility. Maybe we should bring back gentility and refinement schools in order to 'help them develop stronger, more flexible backbones, and all the qualities that contribute to a strong inner core.'

  2. Thank you so much stopping by and adding your insights. I keep rereading this article hoping I missed something in the HOW of creating these qualities in our children. (Again assuming that this is what will make kids more successful, although there is no evidence that this is a cause and effect relationship to begin with.) The whole thing just strikes me as once again formulaic, as if children were cans of peas and can be molded and filled and formed into what we want them to be. For me this flies in the face of everything, literally EVERYTHING I am trying to do as a teacher. It is the individuality, the differences in intellect, in thought processes, in creativity that create the richness of our culture and the incredible innovation of our society. None of these traits are even listed. One might argue that these are not the traits valued by schools either. That's a fair point, and I imagine I'll get around to it at some point in this blog.