Monday, April 14, 2014

Achievement and Morality Require Different Strategies

Now that we live in a house -- a real, honest-to-goodness house -- we have started getting the Sunday New York Times delivered again. I know it seems antiquated, and I still get most of my information online. But there is something delicious about eating breakfast in bed and reading the Sunday Times.

This was our first weekend with the paper, and the first article I read was so significant to me, I wanted to share it here. The opinion piece was entitled "Raising a Moral Child" by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Encouraging Achievement: Praise Effort

Grant begins with the infamous 1998 Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller study about fifth graders and achievement. (I wrote about intelligence versus resilience when the Brilliant Book Club discussed Christine Gross-Loh's Parenting Without Borders.) In short, Dweck and Mueller write, "six studies demonstrated that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students' achievement motivation than praise for effort."

In other words, to encourage achievement (and favor resilience) it is better to say something along the lines of "I'm proud of how hard you worked on that project," as opposed to, "You got an A because you are so smart." Children understand inherently that they can always work harder as opposed to be smarter, which seems more fixed.

Encouraging Moral Behavior: Praise Character

While such a strategy works for achievement, what about morality: kindness, compassion, generosity, a sense of right and wrong? According to Grant, "[g]enetic twin studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited." That leaves 50 to 75 percent to nurture.

When it comes to morality, Grant explains,
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.”
But a 1980 study of seven- and eight-year-olds showed that praising helpful behavior ("that was a good thing to do") was not as effective in encouraging generosity as praising their helpfulness ("you are a helpful person"). Grant says, 
Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person.
And further,
When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.

Discouraging Immoral Behavior: Express Disappointment

Grant explains that when children cause harm, they typically feel one of two moral emotions: shame or guilt.
Shame makes children feel small and worthless.... In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior.
Given these definitions, we clearly want to steer away from using shame as a tactic. (Brene Brown agrees vehemently in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me.)

So how do we avoid using shame in our parenting? Grant explains that,
[S]hame emerges when parents express anger, withdraw their love, or try to assert their power through threats of punishment: Children may begin to believe that they are bad people.... Fearing this effect, some parents fail to exercise discipline at all, which can hinder the development of strong moral standards.
I appreciated that last line, because I am definitely of the camp that children need guidance to develop good character. But sometimes it is difficult to know exactly how far to go when disciplining our children, especially in a society in which many people believe the word "no" is somehow toxic to a child's development. Here's what Grant says:
The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment.... [P]arents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation....[i.e.,] “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.” [emphasis is mine]

Modeling Moral Behavior: Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Finally, Grant discussed the ever-present challenge of modeling moral behavior versus explaining the difference between right and wrong. He references a "classic" 1975 study on the generosity patterns of 7- to 11-year-olds, in which the children keep all the tokens they won in a game or donate some to a poor child. In different scenarios, they watched the adult in the study play the game generously or selfishly and then discuss the importance of giving, taking or neither.

The study found that the children were more likely to be generous themselves when they watched the adult playing the game generously, even if the adult had, in the same scenario, preached taking (selfishness).  

And in a follow-up longitudinal study, "the most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything." [emphasis is mine]

In other words, action speaks louder than words. Much, much louder.

Read the whole opinion piece here, and let me know your thoughts below, on Facebook or on Google+

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Where I'm From

Special thanks to Galit Breen who inspired this post with her own Where I'm From essay at Mamalode. As she said there, "Mining the details of our beginnings and seeing what moved us from there to here is one way to sort through our stories."

I am from wooden cooking spoons, from Ronzoni and a plastic-covered couch.

I am from the brown-shingled high ranch at the end of the cul-de-sac: pink dogwood out front, cement stoop perfect for conspiring, long driveway devoted to my Big Wheel and a 1979 maroon Monte Carlo.

I am from the backyard’s yellow azalea-lined border; the summer garden of cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and green zucchini.

I am from loud Christmas Eve dinners and the notable nose, from Rosa and Vincenzo and Maria.

I am from the working class immigrant’s fear of being swindled and his courage to strive.

From Don’t cheat the man in the glass and Every strength overextended is a weakness.

I am from Roman Catholicism, brittle and unforgiving, rejected outright at age eight following my cousin’s death. No one could explain why we would never finish the jigsaw puzzle he promised we would next time.

I'm from the suburbs, beige and provincial. I am from gritty 1970s Brooklyn. I am from southern Italy in all directions, as far as the finger can trace. I am from Sunday macaroni and lentil soup with sausage eaten on a flowery tablecloth.

From a grandfather whose arthritic spine prevented him from seeing the world, a grandmother who danced at Roseland, a World War II vet, a talented artist whose craft seems to have eluded me.

I am from eight-millimeter film transcribed to DVD and closets of well-labeled albums filled with fading photos amidst yellowing, crumbling glue. I am from peasants’ histories locked away in musty Sicilian civil service basements. I am from places I have only seen in stories. I close my eyes to know them better. This is where I’m from.

Where are you from?

The template for this exercise can be found here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Reasons to Keep Your Toddler Around

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on Facebook, G+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub.

And don’t forget to read what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior. Links to their posts are below.

I did not want to read All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior. I have, in truth, grown a bit weary of the upper middle class navel-gazing and over-analysis paralysis in the parenting department. I didn't liked Maxed Out at all, and while I found the essays in The Good Mother Myth well written and thought-provoking, I confessed to not being susceptible to that particular myth.

I related, instead, to the author of the recent humor piece in the New Yorker whose lede was: "A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit."


But I am so glad I didn't skip this one. Because I love it.

Jennifer Senior's new book is beautifully constructed: interviews with everyday people, compelling social science research and resonant references to literature, both fiction and non-fiction. Her pages are filled with lines from the likes of Milan Kundera, Michael Ondaatje and C.S. Lewis. Senior's own prose is simple and evocative with lines as beautiful as, "The rain comes down harder, turns to hail; it's the kind of windy-wet downpour that twists umbrellas into buttercups." It is a pleasure to read.

The book is divided into three sections: babies and toddlers, early elementary school children and adolescents. I regret that with my move last weekend to the not-quite-suburbs I was only able to get through the chapters on babies and toddlers. But since that is the extent of my hands-on experience to this point, I might have confined my opinions regardless. (Self-justification: check.)

I enjoyed the first two chapters on autonomy (loss thereof) and marriage (changes to) following the birth of a new baby. There is no book on earth that can prepare you for Hurricane Newborn. Not only for the unbounded love you feel for your creation but also for the shifts in life's mundane details: leaving the house in the morning with your sanity intact can seem a Herculean (and humbling) task.

Senior offers a lot of social science research that resonated with my experiences, notably the study that found the level of sleep deprivation "enjoyed" by new parents can compromise performance as much as being drunk. I also appreciated the insightful section on the oft-discussed division of labor between partners. (I will reserve those points for another post discussing what I learned from our recent move.)

But the chapter that really piqued my interest was the third one, entitled "Simple Gifts," which attempts to answer the question no social science research study has ever fully done: Why, if raising children is so difficult, if it leads to sleep deprivation and diminished sex lives and maddening, inane conversations about putting on shoes... why, then, is it also such a source of joy?

Just another day in paradise with a toddler. On the floor of Home Depot. Crying. Naturally.

This question is less a matter of social science and more of philosophy. Here are three reasons she postulates:


Parenting a toddler gives you license to uncork your inner spirit -- the one tamped down by years of functioning in "civilized" society -- and dance like a silly freak, run through sprinklers and play with percussion instruments until your ear drums fall out of your head. No one looks at you sidelong when you slide down a homemade snow hill with your tot. For a couple of years, you have permission to act like a child again. And isn't it glorious?


The unconditional adoration of a toddler is as intoxicating as it gets. It's not that your spouse or siblings don't love you unconditionally; they may in fact do so, just not in the completely unencumbered, unpolluted way that only a child, who hasn't yet lived long enough to judge or be judged, can and does.

To wit, the other night, I went to the door of my two-year-old son's room and listened as he sang a song whose melody and lyrics were all his own. The only words to the song were "Mommy."

Mommy, mommy, mommy ma ma. Mamma mommy mamma mamma maaa.

He wasn't calling me. He was serenading me. For every moment of irrational floor-crying at Home Depot (see photo above), there's also the Mommy song.


Parenting, Senior argues, allows you to take another stab at life's big philosophical questions when your little questioner inquires, "How can we be sure that everything is not a dream?" or "Is there only this place, the place with the sky?" Or ponder questions we once asked but to which we have forgotten the answer in the hurried practicality of quotidian life: "Why is the sky blue?" "What is water?" As Senior puts it, new parents have "a chance, at least for a few years, to contemplate -- and perhaps reconsider -- why the world around them is what it is."

Spirit, love and philosophy. Three great reasons to keep your toddler around. If she has taught me that much in a hundred pages, I look forward to reading what else Senior has in store.


Please be sure to read this week's posts by my Brilliant Book Club co-founders:

Jessica @ School of SmockIf We Left Kids Alone, Would We All Be More Joyful and Happy?

Sarah @ Left Brain BuddhaAncient Wisdom for Modern Parents: 5 Ways to Make Parenting More Joyful

Stephanie @ Mommy, For RealThe Parenthood Paradox: A Snapshot of Two Mothers

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How I Discovered Ernie Was My Doorman

We are leaving Brooklyn for good on Saturday, so I thought it was only appropriate to end on an "are-you-kidding" note.

My aunt gave Henry an "Ernie Rocks" doll early last year. At that point he had not seen Sesame Street, but he loved music class, so she thought it would be cute. If you pulled down the arm strumming the guitar, Ernie played a guitar riff, sang Old MacDonald and said lines like:

Let's rock together!


That was great!

Let's Rock Together!

Henry liked it. "Arnie rock!" he would say when he wanted me to pull it out for him.

Soon after, we were in a toy store when he spied a tinier Ernie and begged for it. It was the first time I had ever given in to child-induced impulse purchasing, but I am quite sure it will not be the last.


By late summer, Henry had started to say a few things beyond mama and dada, but his language hadn't really taken off yet. One day as we returned to the building, Henry's favorite doorman was on duty.

"Say hello to Rupert, Henry," I encouraged him.

"Arnie!" he replied.

The doorman looked at me. "What is he saying?"

"I don't know..." I trailed off because I couldn't be sure, but then I heard it again:


Oh my God.

I hustled to the elevator.

"I think Henry called our doorman Ernie today," I said to my husband that night. "Like, Sesame Street Ernie." We both laughed and brushed it off in a he-sure-does-love-that-Ernie-doll kind of way.

A few days later, we came home to Rupert once again, and Henry cried in excitement:

"Arnie!! Arnie!! You rock, Arnie!!"

Thankfully Rupert seemed none the wiser, as Henry's babbling was still incomprehensible. To me, however, it was crystal clear. He thought our doorman looked like Ernie, with whom he was by now quite familiar from his several viewings of Sesame Street on YouTube.

And come to think of it, our doorman did kind of resemble Ernie. He had a shock of black hair on top of his head and a wide, oblong face. And in the most telling clue of all, he sat behind a desk, displaying only his top half... just like Ernie.


With Henry's language becoming clearer every day, I was never more grateful to be dealing with a non-native English speaker. I would let Henry chat him up until I could no longer stand it. Then I would run out of the building and call my parents, bursting with laughter because my son thought our doorman looked like a Muppet and was not afraid to say it.

But last week, I realized Henry did not think our doorman resembled Ernie. He truly thought our doorman was Ernie.

We came home one evening as always. I stopped to pick up a package while Henry told Ernie about his day: "Ernie... blah blah blah... park... blah blah... Hudsy... ha ha ha!"

I inhaled and exhaled slowly so as not to laugh. And then he said it.

"Where's Bert?"

Oh my God! I could not hold it in any longer. A loud snort and laugh rose up from my belly and exploded forth from my face. A snaugh, if you will.

"What did he say?" Ernie asked.

"I don't know," I murmured shaking my head, tears of laughter running down my face.

"Bert? Where's Bert?" Henry persisted.

Just then, our super -- a tall, thin man with black hair -- arrived.

"Aaaah!" Henry exclaimed. "Bert!"

And that's when I knew: Henry believes we live on Sesame Street.

Who knows where he will think we are in the Bronx??

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

To Ban or Not to Ban Bossy: That Is the Question

Last week, LeanIn.Org, the organization founded by Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame, teamed up with the Girl Scouts to launch a national public service campaign to “ban bossy.”

The BanBossy website provides this tidbit: “Girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem ‘bossy.’” And: “By middle school, girls are 25% less likely than boys to say they like taking the lead.” Indeed, early on, girls understand that speaking their mind makes them unlikeable. And who wants to be unlikeable? No one, least of all tweens just discovering how very fragile their egos are.

A campaign whose stated intention is to “encourage girls to lead” would seem fairly innocuous. Yet there has been a great flood of negativity from the Twittersphere and beyond. Today at Brain, Child Magazine's blogLauren Apfel and I discuss why the campaign fell flat for her while it resonated with me. 

Click here to head over and join the conversation. We would love to hear what you have to say.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is It Still Art If I Laughed?

Henry brought home his first piece of art last week. Actually, his Italian preschool teacher hand-delivered it when I picked him up.

"It's fragile," she said solemnly, while Henry was busy ignoring my exhortations to put on his sneakers.

When I saw his work of San Valentino art, I am not proud to say I laughed, completely out loud and with no irony.

His teacher looked at me with a mixture of offense and puzzlement. And why shouldn't she? My toddler is preternaturally talented. Clearly:

I know I am going to hell in a hand basket; this fact has already been established. Also the fact that I do not have an artsy bone in my body.

But, like, really. What do I do with it?

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