Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Try Again

I have a confession to make.  Despite not having any kids of my own...I read parenting books.  Quite a bit, actually.  I consider them beneficial on two counts: one, it's research that allows me to do my current job better, and two, it's research that I hope will prepare me better for the job ahead of me (someday).  The book I just finished was titled, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between), by Mei-Ling Hopgood.  According to Amazon's book description, it's "a tour of global practices that will inspire American parents to expand their horizons (and geographical borders) and learn that there’s more than one way to diaper a baby."  The author discusses everything from children's bedtimes (or lack thereof) in Argentina, how you won't find a stroller in Kenya, why French children eat their vegetables, and the topic of this post - why Asian children blow other kids out of the academic water. 

I learned an incredible amount from this book, and spent hours mulling over some of the author's findings, comparing them to what I have done with kids and thinking about what might work better instead.  Probably mostly because it was the last chapter in the book (and is therefore the freshest in my mind), but yesterday and today, I found myself consistently being brought back to the discussion about why Asian kids excel in school.  The author makes a case for the fact that a huge reason for this is because of familial and societal expectations and pressures: if you, as an individual, expect yourself to do well and are thus the only beneficiary of your own success, it follows that you are then also the only one hurt by your own lack of effort and subsequent failure.  If, on the other hand, you are raised in a culture or family situation where it is made clear to you that the expectations of you are held by those around you, and that your success (and, obviously, your failure) reflects upon and either honors or dishonors the group, you are much more likely to try.  And that - trying - is the key.  Studies have found that while Americans are much more likely to attribute success to things like good circumstances, natural ability, and even luck, Asian parents send the message to their kids right from the get-go that effort is what matters, and that "not being inherently good at something" isn't really an option; the answer is to try harder in order to achieve success.

Is browbeating the answer?  I'd wager not.  But get a load of this.  Today, I sat with Cricket (who's five) this afternoon while the babies played on their rug and I was asking her to read the words on the bottom of her counting flashcards without looking at the pictures for clues.  The card would say something like, "two sneakers," and I'd cover the picture of the sneakers with another card so that she really had to read the words.  She can recognize number words no problem, and would instantly read the number and then guess what the second word was based on the first letter. 
"Two shoes," she said at first.
"Nope," I answered, "Let's sound it out."  Carefully, watching myself to make sure I wasn't underestimating her abilities and handing her the answer, I made her identify each sound one by one, and then asked her to string them together.  She pursed her lips and glared at me.
"Come on, Cricket, put them together."
"Sssss," she said, and then looked at me hopefully, waiting for me to provide her with the rest of the word.  I looked back, saying nothing.  We covered up the -ers, and worked only on sneak- for a while, and then reattacked the whole word.
"Come on, Cricket.  Try."
She tried, and failed: "Snakes!"
"Nope.  Try again."
She puffed her nostrils a bit, stared at the word, looked at me, and looked at the word again.
"I don't want to do this!"
"No, we're doing this.  Try harder."
 Suddenly, her eyes lit up.  "Sneakers!"
"Yes!" I cried, high-fiving her while she grinned.  "Awesome job, sweetie.  Let's keep going."

And we did.  We worked for half an hour and we got through only six cards.  She huffed and puffed only once more, but never once was she hurt or discouraged by my firm insistence that she try harder.  Rather, it was like fuel to her fire.  She knew that I believed she could do it, and so she started to believe she could too.  I know she is smart, but you know what, so are a lot of kids.  What matters more than how smart she is is how hard she tries.  And we have to teach kids to try that hard.  To fail, and then try again, and again, until they get it right.  Because the only way that she will grow to have high expectations of herself is if someone else has those expectations for her first.

No comments: