You want to raise your child to be self-sufficient and successful (your reading this is proof enough). But what if you’re doing it all wrong, and you don’t even know?
Turns out, whether you’re bribing your son to perform well in school, comforting your kid when her classmates are mean, or even congratulating your daughter for a job well done, research shows there’s a right and wrong way to do it.
Read up on our tips so you don’t accidentally undermine your child’s success:
1. You Tell Him He’s “So Smart”
What is your first reaction when your kid brings home an A grade? “You’re so smart!” Naturally.
Well, try holding your tongue. In a study of elementary school children, researchers showed that telling kids they were smart not only made them less inclined to work hard, it also decreased their performance on tests, and literally made them miserable when faced with a challenge.
Do this instead: Researchers found that telling children they “worked so hard,” when they succeeded made them more likely to take on challenges and actually enjoy them. Plus they continued to improve their problem-solving skills. When your child accomplishes something–from scoring a goal in soccer to memorizing all his vocabulary–tell him how hard he must have worked to do that. He’ll be scoring even more goals soon.
2. You Pay Her for Good Grades
Money is a great motivator, right? After all, it’s the reason why we get up and go to work every day. But the connection between cash and accomplishments isn’t so simple, especially when it comes to your kid.
In a landmark Harvard study involving 18,000 school kids and $6.3 million in research, researchers found that paying kids for grades doesn’t work. That’s because although grownups can make the connection (If I work hard today, then I’ll nail the project, get a good year-end review, and get a raise …), kids can’t look that far ahead and make the connection between turning off the TV to study now, and earning $20 by getting an A in social studies later.
Do this instead: What researchers did find is that it’s effective to pay kids for the habits that lead to good grades. Kids who were paid for a series of small accomplishments performed better on standardized tests and continued to outperform even after the experiment stopped.
So if you have it in your budget, consider sitting down with your child and picking a behavior or two that will lead to long-term improvements. You can pay a couple bucks for every book they finish, like the experimenters did, which led to better reading comprehension. Or pay them a nominal fee for every perfect homework assignment. Whatever the set up, set parameters, stick to them for a few months and see if your child’s performance improves.
3. You Swoop in if It Looks Like He’ll Fail
It’s two days before your kid’s big project is due, and he seems totally unconcerned about getting started. You might be tempted to choose a project outline, drive him to the store for materials, and basically be his project manager.
Here’s why you should resist.
By taking over when your child isn’t doing what he needs to do, you’re sending a signal that kids don’t need to manage their own time, because you’re his personal assistant and alarm clock. This goes for fixing his homework questions, too. If your eventual goal is to raise a self-sufficient individual, picking up after your child undermines that goal. One study showed that children who tried and failed to retrieve an answer before being told the correct response were more likely to remember the answer next time. Kids also perform better in school when they know that failure is part of learning.
Do this instead: Let your kid turn in a shoddy, hastily pulled together project and get a low grade, especially if he’s in elementary or middle school. (He’ll still get into college, we promise.) Then follow up and ask him how he could have planned ahead better. He’ll internalize the lesson that preparedness is key much better than if you glue the situation together for him, literally or metaphorically.
4. You Comfort Her by Saying It’s Their Problem, Not Hers
My sister, a social worker and counselor in Maryland, mentors a couple young girls in her neighborhood. One has a serious attitude problem, and is prone to bossing her classmates (and even my sister) around. When her circle of friends decided they would no longer talk to her, she was understandably upset. Her mother’s reaction? “They’re just jealous.”
“Actually,” my sister observed. “This is a great teachable moment, where she can learn that treating her friends like servants will backfire. Maybe if she learned why her behavior is wrong, she could change it and win them back.” She has a point. Yes, sometimes kids are just being mean, snarky and jealous. And every once in a while a teacher really is bad. But when your kid is going through a rough patch, automatically foisting blame on others is wasting an opportunity for her to grow.
Do this instead: Try to understand all sides of the story. Talk to your child’s teacher, parents of your child’s friends and classmates, your child’s coach or whoever else can give you the whole view of the situation. From there, you can counsel your child on how to change her behavior to bring success, if that’s warranted. For example, you might talk to her about how she can be a better friend, how she can work on her classroom behavior, or how her attitude might be causing friction on her sports team.
And if her teacher really is terrible? It’s an opportunity for her to learn how to work with terrible managers to achieve her goals–because she’ll encounter one someday, promise.