MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on January 8th, 2018, 0 Comments

A Better Way to Think About Competition

Some experts argue that competition encourages excellence and builds character. Others claim that we’ve gotten too carried away with striving to be number one and that there is no such thing as healthy competition. So who’s right?

Researchers recently set out to answer that question. But after analyzing hundreds of studies on competition they concluded that there was no clear answer. Sometimes competing enhanced kids’ learning and performance, but just as often it did not. Digging deeper, however, researchers found that competing often beats working solo when kids get a chance to experience camaraderie and mastery as part of the process.

Many kids say they prefer to compete as part of a group (like on math teams and in chess clubs and science fairs) because they like being with their friends while learning. There’s still pressure – including the additional pressure of not wanting to let the team down. But the stress is buffered by the camaraderie of having teammates.

How kids think about the competitive process can also affect learning and performance. The best competitors view winning as succeeding at problem solving. And they don’t just compare themselves to others. They focus at least as much on learning something and beating their own personal best.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when you think about competition.

It’s okay if kids want to win. Most of us long to be the best at something. And it’s much more fun for them (and us) if they win. But it’s much more important that kids learn to work hard even when they compare themselves to the best around them and determine they’re not a star. This is essential for succeeding in a competitive world. We can encourage this by expanding our definition of what it means to succeed – so that the motive becomes not just to win but to learn or master something as well.

Kids don’t need to always win. If kids always win, even when they’re not turning up the effort, they’ll come to think that just showing up entitles them to a win.
Plus not winning can help give kids an accurate world view – letting them see that they’re not the best at everything and that losing is not the end of the world.

Kids do need to learn how to fail forward. To be successful over the long haul, kids have to be taught how to bounce back, reset goals, and keep on growing. We can encourage this by helping them see competition as a problem-solving task – with losing viewed as falling short of their goals, not falling short as a person.

Pressure should have an end point. Pressure itself is not a bad thing. In fact, the right amount of pressure can help kids focus on the task at hand. But endless pressure can be harmful. So there should be some ebb and flow in the pressure kids face, giving them time to rest and recuperate.

Encourage group and team activities. These emphasize cooperation and camaraderie that can teach kids how to work with and cheer for others.

Be aware of your messages. Our model is powerful. If we’re too quick to quit when things get tough or blame external forces when things don’t go as we hope, our kids will pick up on this regardless of what we say.

Bottom Line
We aren’t going to eliminate competition. If we did, we’d have to let everybody do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. And that can’t be done. But we can reframe the way we think about competition. After all, winning is exhilarating and motivating. And although it’s almost always more fun to win, losing can teach valuable lessons too.

Selected Sources and References:
Bronson, P., and A. Merryman. 2014. Top dog: the science of winning and losing. Hachette Book Group. New York.
Richtel, M. 2012. The competing views on competition in New York Times.
Rimm, S. 2010. Teaching healthy competition.

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MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern

Posted on December 4th, 2017, 0 Comments

Your Expectations Matter: Here’s How to Find Your Teen’s Sweet Spot

We love our kids and want the best for them. And we have an important role to play in their achievement. Hardly anybody would disagree with that. In fact, study after study has shown that parents’ expectations can have a strong, positive effect on children’s success – sometimes more than any other type of parental involvement.

The problem is that we often use a sample group that is too-small and too-subjective when we set our expectations. We use our older children, or a neighbor’s precocious child, or even our own unreliable childhood memories to determine the height of the bar.

Using this subjective sample group, we tend to set the bar too high. And when our kids don’t live up to our expectations, our stress level rises. We crank up the pressure.

Even if our intentions are to guide, if we’re not careful, we can end up pressuring our children and pushing them over the slippery stress slope – particularly if what we want is not inline with our kid’s level of maturity, ability, or interest. The following conversation between a father and his son, a high school football player on the morning before a game, is a good case in point.
Father: You stressed out?
Teen: A little.
Father: Good. Because stress is all part of football. If you’re not throwing-up in your mouth, you’re not doing it right. Nerves are good.
Teen: There’s a few hours left until game time. I think I’ll just go lie down under my bed for a little while.

This father was right – at least in part – when he said that nerves are good. Up to a point, stress can help with focus. It can motivate and energize. But too much stress has a negative effect on performance.

The same thing can happen with our expectations. If our expectations are too low, it can make it hard for our kids to see and achieve all that they can do. But unreasonably high expectations can lead to high anxiety and discouragement in our kids and set them up for failure. The trick is to find each teen’s sweet spot: that place where our expectations are neither too high nor too low but just right.

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Below are a few tips to help you find your teen’s sweet spot:

Pay attention to your teen’s mood when expectations are being discussed. If your teen seems nervous, withdraws from the conversation, or becomes self-critical (“I’ll never be able to do this” or “I’ll mess-up and everyone will see it”) when you’re discussing their performance in school, a sport or another activity, it’s a sign that your expectations might be too high.

Emphasize motivation, hard work, and improvement. Make sure that you’re paying at least as much attention to the process of learning and growth and development as you are to the outcome like wins and grades.

Realize that every activity may not be a good fit. Help your teen find a balance between honoring long-term commitments (sticking with something even when it gets challenging) and being able to try new things.

Encourage your teen to find at least one activity where they can shine if they work at it. This will boost their self-confidence. But just as importantly it will give them firsthand evidence that effort matters – that the harder they work, the better they get.

Even the slightest adjustment in our expectations or the way we convey them – a little more care in what we say, a little more reflection on our values and what is really important to us, or a little more consideration of what is important to our teen – can result in surprisingly big improvements.

Selected Sources and References
Modern Family: Season 6, Episode 3, “The Cold”
“Parents’ Values and Children’s Perceived Pressure” in Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Research Series
“Why Can’t Johnny Jump Tall Buildings?” by Alan Kazdin in Slate Magazine
“Are Parents’ Expectations Too High?” by Lisa Harker for ChildrensMD

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