May 20th, 2019

Why families need a failure-tolerant attitude

Yesterday there was a general election in Australia and the Labor party was widely predicted to win it. They had gone into the election with an unusually detailed set of policies for social and tax reform. In a shock result they were defeated and of course today analysts are poring over the loss to try to understand what happened.

You may wonder why I’m talking about an election result, particularly at a time when people across the world are expressing disenchantment with politicians. Well it’s because an election gives us a great opportunity to explore loss, defeat, and failure. In the developed world we are very focused on winning and certainly the new government and its supporters will be celebrating but if we don’t pay attention to failures not only are we likely to make the same mistakes again but we miss an opportunity to see that it’s not the wins or the losses that define us but what we do thereafter.

The leader of the ALP made a very gracious speech accepting that his party had lost, in which he acknowledged the hurt and the loss of the vision he had for his country, he congratulated the prime minister on his win and sincerely wished him and his family well and good fortune and good courage in the service of his country and he said that all had a responsibility to respect the result. He thanked many people who had helped in the campaign and he generously stood aside to make room for a new leader to lead the party to a future victory. He was very focused on the idea of success next time.

There is much to learn from this for our children. Children, like adults, experience failure on a daily basis and it is up to us as parents to teach them how to regard losses.

There are some very different approaches to failures. In one approach failure is just not an option. Success is defined by winning or high grades or scores and that is regarded as the goal, if not the only acceptable outcome. The focus is relentlessly on results. When a child comes home from school and we ask “How did the spelling test go?” we mean “what was your score?” The first question we ask after a sporting match is “Did you win?” Asking “what level are you on in the reading scheme?” rather than “did you enjoy that book?” is prioritising their place in the hierarchy over appreciation of stories and words and the truths expressed in them. This tells our children that winning matters, above all else. It prioritises results over enjoyment of the activity and whatever they may learn from participation in that activity. Coming first is more important than collaboration; your friends are your competitors; you have to do what it takes to get an edge over them. It sends the message that I am most interested in the end result. It is your performance that gets my attention and my approval. We unintentionally give the message that our regard is conditional.

When this happens not only can our children experience tremendous pressure and stress but they also do not learn to cope with failure. They do not learn that there is anything noble in defeat. They learn that it is to be avoided. And since it can’t be avoided they may learn to cover it up. They may learn to cheat so that failures can’t be seen or they may not be able to admit failures to themselves, thereby taking away any opportunity to learn from them. They develop a fixed mindset. This is the term coined by Professor Carol Dweck to refer to an attitude to learning characterised by a belief that intelligence is innate and fixed. People with fixed mindsets attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Students who hold a fixed mind-set, are concerned about looking smart with less regard for real learning. They have negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something is a sign of low ability. They think that a person with talent or intelligence does not need to work hard to do well.

In his book Black Box Thinking Matthew Syed explores two different approaches of industries to failures. He looks at how the aviation industry looks at any aircraft failure, especially crashes, very closely to see what can be learned to avoid future problems. He also looked at the medical profession where in surgery in many countries a culture of cover up has developed with a failure to admit mistakes. The different approaches stem from an attitude toward failure.

Sometimes people who find failures difficult don’t cover up their failures but embrace them. Since success gets so much air time they may believe that everyone else is successful, especially if they believe the carefully curated pictures of lives on social media. That makes one’s personal failures doubly difficult since we think we’re the only ones getting it wrong, when in fact failing is the norm. They believe that they are failures and their low self-confidence prevents them from trying anything new or persevering with anything difficult. They believe that they can’t do it. They may protect themselves by living within very narrow parameters and not exposing themselves to failures, whether socially, academically or in professional life. Some protect themselves further by self-criticism –we make sure that there is nothing our critics could tell us that we have not already fully taken on board.

The defeated politician I mentioned at the start modelled a different approach. This is a model of a successful life as one in which we live with purpose and we throw ourselves into projects that give our lives meaning. We do our best and if that doesn’t achieve a goal we acknowledge the hurt and we have the courage to look at it and learn from it. And then we go forward with self-compassion, hope and determination to try again. All of this depends on having a growth mindset where effort is respected and failures not feared.

We can create this model for our children in the way we approach results and talk about failures. Above all else our children need to know that making mistakes (including in day to day interactions with others) is part of being human. We need to model a failure-tolerant attitude that includes:

  • Admitting our own mistakes. This shows we are not diminished by them but we grow from them.
  • Talking about what we’ve learnt from our failures and how our brains grow more through struggle than in doing things that come easily.
  • Point to people who handle failures well like the rare politician mentioned above. Another MP who lost his seat said “I’d rather be a loser than a quitter” and that’s not a bad role model to offer to kids.
  • Not focusing so much on outcomes but on what’s learnt in the process.
  • Using praise which is descriptive, not evaluative and which focuses on effort and attitude and strategies, rather than results.
  • Never use or tolerate put-downs like ‘you loser’.

So go forth and fail with equanimity and with grace!

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May 09th, 2017

Two words for success in life and parenting

Ann Magalhaes, who runs our classes in Rye, New York, was listening to a radio programme in which the interviewee was Norman Lear, writer and producer of sitcoms, who was just shy of his 94th birthday.  Mid-way through the interview, he was asked if he had any tips for getting to 94 as spry and as successful and happy as he is.  This was his response: 

[It] may be as simple as any two words in the English language – over and next.  And we don’t pay enough attention to them.  When something is over, it is over … and we are on to next.  And if there was to be a hammock in the middle … between over and next, that would be what is meant by living in the moment.” 

Ann said as a parenting educator this hit home!  At The Parent Practice we encourage our clients not to linger on the ‘bad’ things our children have done.  We often stew about slammed doors, muddy shoes in the hall, rolled eyes, tantrums … and we find ourselves staying angry or resentful about things that have already happened.  Those of you who have ever asked a teenager to un-slam a door – well, you know how that goes! 

Over and Next serve as a reminder that what happened is over and now it’s time to move forward with some learning.  It’s now, as Lear says, ‘hammock time’, that split second between your child’s emotional outburst and your response – the magical moment that enables you to connect with your child without anger, judgement or blame.  It is the time to be present — take a deep restorative breath and remember that what happened is now over – and you get to choose how you handle what comes next.  When we can get into the habit of responding this way, we no longer have to lose it with our kids!  As Steven Covey (7 Habits of Highly Effective Families) suggests, we can push the pause button and decide on a more constructive response.   

Next is all about supporting your child in a constructive and positive way to learn a more appropriate behaviour; to make amends; or simply to solve whatever problem they are facing that day.   This way, your child can start to think about what he or she can do the next time they are feeling that same emotion, so that they are empowered to deal with it in a more effective and positive way. 

‘Hammock time’ is a moment to decide to build a deeper connection with your child.  It is about practicing living in the space between over and next – the space where you can listen, encourage and love. 

The key to making use of hammock time lies in these 5 things:

  • We have to take steps to reduce our stress levels and to look after ourselves
  • We need to understand what makes us lose our cool
  • What makes kids do what they do
  • What makes us react the way we do
  • We need to have strategies to teach our children to behave differently 

Taking good care of ourselves is not being selfish or self-indulgent – it is taking care of our needs so that we are better equipped to support our families. Try thinking of it as on-going professional development for your job as a parent. When we’re calm, we can access the parenting skills we already have, and the ones we’re learning and working on.
What can you do to look after your physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing?

To make sure you get into action:

TAKE one small step – rather than applying to run the marathon next year, join a local fitness class or download some running tracks and set off for the local park.

COMMIT money – if we pay up in advance, we’re less likely to back out on the morning.

SCHEDULE it – the act of writing it into our diary makes it more likely to happen.

FIND a friend – either persuade a friend to join you in your run or trip to the museum, or ask them to act as a ‘stand’ for you which means you give them permission to call you and find out how it went. 

It may help to use some calming techniques in the moment too so you can access your ‘hammock’ moment.

VISUALISE You can either visualise the stress and get rid of it or visualise something very calm and soothing.

VERBALISE Use a mantra to help you calm down. “Breathe and relax.” Or maybe “That’s over. What’s next?” Counting to 10 also works. 

MOVE Take deep breaths, do something physical like go for a walk, splash cold water on your face or hands, get a massage, leave the room.
Understanding why our kids do the things they do and why we respond the way we do is the subject of chapter 7 of our book, Real Parenting for Real Kids.

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June 21st, 2016

Acting like a man; lessons from father to son.

Many of you will have read the account of the rape of a girl by a young male athlete from Stanford University recently. The girl had attended the same party as her assailant and had drunk a considerable amount. So much, that she was not conscious when the assault occurred.

The case has attracted a lot of attention, partly because of the manner in which the defence was conducted, because of a letter from the boy’s father begging for clemency because the boy had such a bright future ahead of him, and partly because of the eventual leniency of the sentence, just 6 months. The family, the legal team and (it would appear) the judge excused the behaviour on account of the defendant’s promising future. What about the girl’s future?

Parents reading the account will, no doubt, have had strong reactions, whether you have sons or daughters or your children are still much younger than this boy or are in the later teenage years. Most parents who’ve spoken to me about this case are appalled at the manner of the young defendant, his legal team and his father when he suggested to the judge that his son should not have his promising career as a swimmer jeopardised by “20 minutes of action.” So it begs the question what should this dad have done? What should we do when our children are in the wrong? This is a most difficult position for a parent to be in and one where we have to be courageous and live out our values if we are to really help our children at the eleventh hour. As much as we might think we have communicated our values to our children they will still do wrong sometimes. It also prompts the further question, how do we prevent situations like this arising in the first place?

For the record I have been in that unenviable position (albeit in a minor way) of receiving that most unwanted call from the school. When my son was very young he hit another child in the playground and caused a nose-bleed. He was suspended from school. It didn’t feel minor at the time.

We are usually quick to judge other parents and you might think that I had not brought my son up with proper values about using force. Well, we thought we had. But he was 7 or 8 years old and very impulsive. His self-esteem was low, with an as yet undiagnosed learning difficulty and he regularly felt humiliated at school. That does not excuse the behaviour but it did serve to explain it and to direct our strategies. When we excuse we do nothing. When we seek to explain we are trying to understand it. His upbringing was of course still a work in progress; he was still learning. And to be frank at that stage my husband and I were not particularly skilled. This episode was one of the catalysts that sent us to take a parenting course that transformed our lives!

How do you pass on the values that you really care about to your children? How do you equip them with those standards that would allow them by the time they go to university to know how to behave toward a drunken girl at a party and for those values to be so embedded that they would guide your child’s actions even if he was drunk himself?

Parents model those values I hear you say. Of course this is a really big part of how we pass on our values. But the father of this aspiring undergraduate may never have assaulted anyone in front of his son. Our values get passed on in much more basic ways when they are much younger. While the boy in this case may not have witnessed outright physical violence in his own family, what did he absorb about respecting others generally and particularly toward women, did his parents discipline him by using force when he was young and was he held accountable for his actions growing up? In particular as his sporting prowess grew was he put on a pedestal and excused certain behaviours?

In Rosalind Wiseman’s excellent book Ringleaders and Sidekicks she talks about how being a top athlete gives a boy exalted status and how those talented sportsmen are often not held to account for their actions. I enjoyed her story of a wise coach who observed such behaviours in one of his team. When the team was travelling interstate for a match this particular boy pushed to the front of the queue when boarding the plane. This behaviour may not seem like much in itself but it is a small example of thinking oneself better than others. The coach took the unusual action of making the boy apologise to all the passengers in the cabin over the public address system. When adults take steps over small behaviours the values get embedded.

We parents pass on our values when:

  1. We are clear about what our values are
  2. We talk overtly about our values often and point out examples of those qualities in the children and others
  3. We model them ourselves, explicitly making decisions by reference to those principles
  4. We require it of the children, sometimes through explicit rules.
  5. We do not excuse unacceptable behaviour but we teach our children to behave in accordance with those values.

When children get things wrong it isn’t effective to get mad at them but we do need to hold them accountable. At The Parent Practice we recommend The Mistakes Process which helps kids recognise why what they did wasn’t a good thing to do and to make amends for it. We believe in redemption. When our children do something wrong we want to forgive them but forgiveness depends on there being genuine remorse. That is much more likely when parents discipline without anger and judgment.

So what should this dad have done? Of course he should have stood by his son. But that doesn’t mean condoning or trying to excuse his behaviour. He should have supported his boy to take responsibility for his actions, like a man. And we know that would have taken a great deal of courage. But if the father can show it, maybe the son can too.

In what ways were you held accountable as a child? How have you required your children to make amends? Do share your stories with us.

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September 20th, 2015

How to Raise Responsible Children

Responsibility can seem like a daunting word.  If we think about all the things we are responsible for, it can be frightening and overwhelming.  We are responsible for ourselves, our responses, our relationships, our mistakes, our education and careers, our health and well-being … and while our children are growing up, we are responsible for all those things for them as well. But our goal is to teach them to be responsible for themselves. 

When parents ask us how they can encourage their children to be more responsible, here’s what we suggest: 

Be your child’s emotion coach

Today we understand the value of raising emotionally intelligent children – children who are confident, resilient, empathetic, compassionate and authentic.  The way to raise emotionally intelligent children is to be their emotion coach.  That means that when your children are upset, angry, jealous, disappointed, afraid, feeling inadequate, left out or let down… that you acknowledge the feelings and support your child to find her own solutions. Accepting your children’s feelings doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with them or accepting all behaviours.  If your child says “I HATE YOU.  YOU’RE THE WORST MOTHER EVER” and you respond with “you’re mad that you have to go to Granny’s and you can’t go to your friend’s party” … it is not a confession or agreement.  It is just allowing their feelings to be heard. And once the feeling is released you may go back to address the behaviour. 

Often, we are quick to invalidate our children’s feelings because we want to fix things for them and make everything better.  Rather than advising them and telling them what to do, it is better for them to allow them to come up with their own solutions.  

Teaching children how to deal with uncomfortable feelings with words will teach them to be responsible for dealing with life’s knocks in a positive way. We can also coach them to deal with anger by taking vigorous exercise or with sadness by listening to music or with overwhelm by putting something in order and we can model how we deal with these feelings ourselves. 

Use the mistakes process

Children will make mistakes.  For children to learn, we need to be able to see mistakes and failure as an opportunity to learn.  The mistakes process will leave you and your children with new learning and a strengthened connection.  This needs to be done when everyone is calm … so take some cool down time beforehand to be able to handle the situation positively. You’ll need to start by acknowledging the feelings involved. 

  • Admit –your child takes responsibility for what s/he did. Because you’re calm and handling this without anger, blame and judgment, your child will be less afraid to tell you what happened.
  • Amends – We want our children to be able to clean up their messes – the literal and the figurative ones. So, if your son has spilled some milk, let him clean it up.  If your daughter has said something hurtful to her sister, help her make it up to her.
  • Alter – This is where the learning comes in. We want our children to learn how alter their behaviour so they will have a better way of handing a similar situation next time.
  • Acceptance – This particular incident has now been dealt with. Accept that it’s over, the mess has been cleaned up and now it’s time for forgiveness and acceptance. 

Set up for Success

At the heart of positive parenting is teaching our children what they can be responsible for – given their age and stage of development.  Setting up for success means being a proactive and prepared parent.  It means teaching your child to tie his shoes throughout the summer holidays rather than thinking he’ll be able to do it on the first day of school.  It’s about giving some thought and training rather than ambushing your children at the last minute expecting that they’ll be happy and willing to do what is required.  Talking through things ahead of time with your children – whether it’s your 4 year old’s first day of school or your teenager’s first secondary school party – is preparing them so they are ready for what could happen.  

Chores

When children have chores to do, they start to see themselves as contributing to the family.  Add on the descriptive praise they receive from you when they have done the chore and they develop the feeling of being trusted.  That in turn builds their confidence and motivation to continue to help out!  

Chores teach children valuable life skills.  Whether your children are making their beds and tidying their rooms, or cooking, cleaning up, preparing a table for dinner, helping in the garden, or taking care of a pet, we know that children gain a stronger sense of pride and dignity from being a contributing member of the family.  

Writer Joan Dideon said: “The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”  We want to give our children the gift of self-respect.  By using these four parenting tools, you will purposefully ensure that you are passing on that gift every day.

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