Identifying, promoting target behaviors to improve grades
As a clinical child psychologist and mother of three, I find I cannot let Lisa Brown's Nov. 6, column "Straight A's profitable for kids" go by without comment. In general I am a strong supporter of families' personal choices about how to motivate their children, short of abuse. How she raises her children is her business.
However, as a columnist, Ms. Brown is in a position to influence others, and I think readers need to know that her system, as described, is potentially fraught with problems.
She may be surprised to learn that it is not the bald-faced "payment for performance" that troubles me most. There is a solid body of research to support the selective and thoughtful use of tangible rewards as one component of teaching children, especially at younger ages. What I find questionable is the cold insistence that only perfection — in the form of straight A's — is worthy of recognition and only laziness can explain the failure to reach this level. The final paragraph of her column accounting her unnecessary (and I predict non-fruitful) humiliation of her third triplet in front of his more successful and heavily compensated siblings was disturbing, as was her assurance that her intervention would lead him to "bring those four grades up."
I do not doubt that Ms. Brown is a concerned mother who has her children's best interest at heart. If she wants to inspire her children (and perhaps her readers), she need not look far to find some good tools and concepts.
Developmental theorists emphasize that children at this age need to be engaged in a variety of learning activities. When we fail to help children discover and develop their unique skills and talents, perhaps due to our insistence on perfection, our punitive approach, or our narrow definition of "skills and talents," our children are stalled on their healthy road to competence and identity formation.
If we want to set a goal of improving academic achievement, it is usually productive to identify observable behaviors that could help children succeed if they would increase or decrease.
Good communication with teachers can help identify important "target behaviors." For example, if a target is to improve a child's rate of returning homework, parental energy can be focused on a step-by-step plan that reinforces writing down assignments, showing successfully completed work to a parent, and teaching/reinforcing careful packing of homework into an organized backpack.
No matter what you ultimately want to see, start with an honest appraisal of what you have now, and reward improvement in the right direction (successive approximations). I am sure even Ms. Brown's "above average" children were not expected to leap up one day and dress themselves perfectly. I expect she taught the skill of dressing oneself in an instructive and encouraging step-by-step fashion. Go with it. It worked, didn't it?
I also worry about the strong message of this tale that only perfection is acceptable. In interactions such as these, regardless of our noble intent, we are potentially teaching our children to devalue others who do not look perfect, perform at superior levels, or get perfect grades. We also run the risk of teaching them that they cannot be lovable if they are not perfect. Do not underestimate the weight of parental messages and actions in forming children's self-esteem, persistence, tolerance and generosity.
Finally, I offer some reassurance from a college professor and a mother whose children have done very well for themselves with college scholarships. Of course academic performance is important, but the job in middle school and beyond is not pressured resume building as Ms. Brown suggests. If you want to help your children succeed in college, help them become people who are equipped and eager to learn. Help them become contributors who will be an asset to a college community. Read with them and share your writing, your hobbies and your passions, and help them find theirs; help them discover sports, art and music; explore our local beaches, parks, and history; play together, volunteer together and share your day over dinner together. There are plenty of slots in good colleges. Young children and their parents will miss precious and fleeting time together if it is all about what colleges expect on the resume.
Straight A's — profitable. A lifetime of learning and growing with your children — priceless.
CONWAY F. SAYLOR, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Board Certified in Child and Adolescent Psychology
Isle of Palms