May 9, 2009
Barack Obama had one. So did Einstein and Edison. So why do we criticise mothers who encourage their offspring to do more?
Being labelled a pushy mum is social death right now. So terrified are we of being labelled a “helicopter parent”, always hovering, by a series of – usually male – parenting gurus that competitive lax parenting is the height of cool. On the website Mumsnet, anyone who dares to worry that her child is reading books that are a bit on the easy side is considered a raving loony.
We can scarcely open a newspaper without reading how stressed our children are, and it wasn’t that many years ago that some psychologists and teachers were calling for parents to take it easy and allow their children to enjoy themselves while they still had the opportunity to do so.
However, pushy mums are behind many a successful man. For me, the really interesting piece of information on President Obama’s childhood was that his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, worried that her son’s Indonesian education was failing him, used to wake him at 4am each day to teach him from a US correspondence course.
“This is no picnic for me either, buster,” she said, when he questioned the punishing schedule. Thomas Edison’s mother educated him at home when teachers dubbed him dim. Albert Einstein’s mother, Pauline, introduced her young son to the piano and the violin, and when, aged 12, he fancied learning geometry and algebra, she bought him advanced textbooks.
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So why do pushy mums get a bad rap? OK, I might be a little biased. On my daughter’s fourth birthday recently she received a miniature violin. She also has riding, swimming and ballet classes. At night, alongside the Milly-Molly-Mandy and Peter Rabbit, I get out a stack of Jolly Phonics books to teach her to read. I also taught my son, who is 7, to read before he was 4. I am, I’m afraid, the kind of mum who drags her children around the British Museum at weekends – “Look, darling! This writing is called cuneiform” – takes them to the ballet, and puts Classic FM on for the nursery run (well, Radio 3 would be really pushy, wouldn’t it?).
In my defence, my daughter begged for a violin and my son was desperate to read. But, of course, what I really want is for my children to have every possible advantage in life. Research indicates that children who have multiple after-school activities do better and are even happier and better behaved than their sofa-surfing peers.
Sandra Hofferth, at the University of Maryland, started her research believing that “lots of activities are bad for children”. The data changed her mind. “We just don’t find that the children who are more active are more stressed,” she said.
Music lessons, especially before the age of 6, help children to do better in all academic areas and develop higher IQs. It has even been recently shown that if parents are sufficiently “pushy” – that is to say, who get on the board of governors at their kids’ schools – their children will excel even at badly performing comprehensives and outperform kids at elite public schools.
The psychologist Joan Freeman, the author of How To Raise a Bright Child (Vermilion, £9.99), says: “A child won’t get anywhere without help and some gentle pushing.” She points out that few children will do piano practice for the love of it and that parents are “capable of recognising if their child is underperforming”.
She says: “Pushy parents on the whole are good at heart and want the best for their children. And gifted children are hungry for intellectual challenges and need to have their interests fed.” Children, she says, need encouragement. Of course, she adds, a few parents go over the top. “Their children’s lives are planned in every detail and they are never allowed to relax and have fun.”
But, equally, the educational psychologist Kairen Cullen says: “It is normal for parents to aspire to helping their children make the best of their lives.” She says that children benefit from sticking with things and that having high expectations of your offspring is “hugely important and key to children’s achievements”.
So what is the best way to be a healthily pushy parent? I assumed that it was kinder to sign up kids only for activities that they were “naturally” good at but, according to Dr Christine Carter, the psychologist and executive director of the Greater Good Science Centre, a US research centre devoted to looking at the science behind happiness, I was wrong.
For example, I planned to pay for violin lessons for Cecily only if she had an innate talent and found it relatively easy. But apparently letting children do things that they aren’t good at is the best encouragement.
Dr Carter’s research reveals that children who reported facing more challenges in their lives were far happier than the children who reported fewer (or no) challenges. “That means not only is failure critical to success but it’s also a cornerstone of happiness.”
She explains: “There are two basic mindsets. People with fixed mindsets believe that their talents and personalities are inborn. People with growth mindsets believe that success is a result of effort as much as aptitude.”
Dr Carter says that fixed-mindset thinking, such as “Cecily is a natural athlete and Henry is naturally academic”, undervalues the role of effort and learning. “To fixed-mindset kids, effort is an indication that they aren’t naturally gifted. If you tell your kids that their talents are inborn, research has shown that this creates urgency in them to prove their ‘gifts’ over and over. That means they start to choose activities based on whether or not they will succeed or fail.” And that means they won’t seek out challenges and they won’t have fun.
To foster a growth mindset, she says, the important thing is to send the message that effort is the name of the game rather than achievement. “Define their success as how hard they try rather than what kind of grades they get or whether they win the game. To create growth-mindset kids, we need to repeatedly communicate: ‘I expect effort; I do not expect achievement’.”
Cullen agrees, and adds: “Children need opportunities and encouragement, affirmation and practical resources. They also need love, time to relax, a balance of activities and a concern for their emotional wellbeing. Pushiness is never healthy if you are trying to fulfil your own frustrated ambitions through your children.
“I also don’t think it is healthy if the family makes huge personal and financial sacrifices for their children. The children are more likely to feel indebtedness and guilt than happiness and gratitude.”
Do’s and don’ts for parents
– Don’t expect perfection. No child is perfect, so when parents push for perfection children feel criticised.
– Praise and encourage effort, not achievement. Children praised for effort tend to be happier and more enthusiastic, and in the end they tend to do better than their anxious, self-limiting peers.
– Watch out for signs of stress such as ill health or unhappiness. If you see them, step back.
– Don’t schedule every minute of their free time. Children need time to mooch about, think and dream.
– Don’t be obsessed with preventing your children from making mistakes.
– If you “help” by rewriting their homework, or by taking missed homework to school, they won’t have the opportunity to learn from their errors.
– Do set a good example. If you want your children to read, read yourself. Studies have indicated that being a keen reader yourself can be more effective at producing good readers than reading to your children
May 9, 2009