Steven Rudolph – How to push your kids, without pushing them over the edge

3 Idiots has certainly caused quite a stir. There’s been the Chetan Bhagat war of course, but the controversy I hope that has lasting impact is the debate over our educational system and the way we raise our children. Are we burdening our kids with our obsessive expectations for high exam scores? Are we limiting their freedom by guiding them into more traditional professions that are considered ‘safe’?  The stats, I am afraid, say yes. 16 students a day, kill themselves due to exam stress in the country. India accounts for 10% of all teenage suicides, and South India has even earned the unfortunate reputation of being the ‘suicide capital of the world’.

But let’s not level our complaints too heavily on our country’s mothers and fathers. Most are not resorting to authoritative means like Professor ViruS . They just want their children to be happy and to attain success. In fact it is completely reasonable to have high expectations of your kids. Research shows that children whose parents maintain high standards of them do better in school, while those who do not are more prone to succumb to laziness and underachievement.

The problems occur in my experience because parents are confused about how to motivate and guide their kids in the best way. How much pressure—and what kind of pressure—should one put on one’s child? Some parents I have met are too tough; there are others who constantly walk on egg shells, terrified of upsetting their children.  Mostly, however, the parents I meet just have unanswered questions. Chances are you are already doing a pretty good job, but that your practices just need some fine-tuning. Here’s how you can push your kids without pushing them over the edge.

Have high, but reasonable expectations

You must accept firstly that each child is unique. Expecting all kids to achieve the same standards often leads to great disappointment—some are simply imbued with greater aptitudes than others. The key then is to determine the strength of the child’s abilities, and to set your expectations accordingly.

For instance, if your daughter demonstrates a high calibre in maths by scoring consistently above 90% on her exams, but suddenly begins to slide down to 70% because she is spending more time with her friends or using the internet, it would be reasonable to encourage her to set her targets in the 90% zone. On the other hand, if your son has consistently performed poorly in maths and has an average of 45%, expecting him to get above 90% would be unfeasible. However, encouraging him to set a target 55% would be very realistic.

Be fair, firm, and consistent

Be sure to establish ground rules regarding your children’s homework and daily routine. Whether it’s the number of hours they study, watch TV, or spend on Facebook, there must be clearly articulated parameters for what is permissible and what is not—as well as consequences for breaking the rules. Punishments need to also fit the crime. For instance, beating your child or denying him complete access to TV or the internet or friends for weeks because of a minor infraction like failing to submit a homework assignment on time could prove to be a serious demotivator.

You must also be firm in your decisions and not be afraid to say no when the situation warrants it. Children may attempt to avoid responsibilities by using tactics such as yelling, crying or pleading for sympathy. They will certainly test you, and if you give in, they will learn that the rules are bendable and will bend them at every opportunity. But if you are consistent, they will realize you mean business, and after a few days or weeks will respect your strictness. Say your 12 year old daughter wants to go with her friends to the mall, but you refuse. She gives you the silent treatment for days and even refuses to eat. Feeling guilty, you eventually give in and let her go. You’ve temporarily patched things up; however, the next time she doesn’t get her way, she knows exactly which tactics to use.

Don’t push, facilitate

In the process of helping children achieve their potential, parents sometimes become lost in the role of being disciplinarians. The loving, intimate discussions they used to have with their dear little ones suddenly begin to sound more like orders being barked out to military cadets: ‘Stop eating so much junk food.’ ‘Get back in there and finish your homework.’ ‘You had better start bringing home better scores,’ and so on. As children reach their early teens, parents often find that such excessive pushing has little effect, and may even backfire, where children begin to tune out their parents’ demands and even physically avoid them or lie to them in order to escape their excessive nagging.

My suggestion here is to do less pushing and more facilitating. Engage in meaningful conversations with your kids to find out what they are up to. Ask them questions about their friends, the best part of their day, difficult decisions they might have made, someone they helped, or something funny that happened in school. You should also inquire about what kinds of problems they are facing—as well as how they are addressing those problems. By engaging with your kids in this way, you establish a rapport with them, opening channels of communication that will make them more receptive to your suggestions and feedback. But more importantly, such meaningful dialogue hones their critical thinking skills, which in turn improves their decision making abilities.

Help them put failure in perspective

All children face failure from time to time—getting a shockingly low score on a test, freezing up while giving a speech, dropping a ball and costing their team the game. And when they do, their feelings of embarrassment and humiliation can eat directly into their sense of self-esteem. When their self-esteem drops, so does their concentration and their motivation, and their likelihood of failing again, which causes a negative downward spiral.

It’s at times like these that your children need your support the most. They need to know that know your love is not dependent on their success. At the same time, they do need to realize that your approval is dependent on their effort. For example, if your son returns home and shows you an English essay that is completely marked up in red, and you know he could have done better, you should tell him you are not satisfied with his performance. However, not eating together with him or kissing him goodnight would signal to him that you only love him when he succeeds. This would intensify your son’s fear of failure. He might then go to great lengths to ensure he doesn’t fail and risk losing your love—including cheating or lying.

Make your kids play

All work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy. Play is an excellent stress buster that enables the brain to recharge itself and remain at its optimal efficiency. Whether kids play cricket or an instrument, dance or paint, time spent in recreational activities has tremendous physical, mental, and social benefits.

Case in point: A mother from New Delhi came to me with her daughter who she claimed was intelligent, but unusually sluggish and not scoring particularly well on her exams. After asking her a few questions, I discovered that after the girl got home from school daily, she would go to three separate tuitions. She would then eat dinner and study late into the night. ‘Don’t you ever play?’ I asked. ‘Not really,’ she replied, ‘who’s got time?’ I eventually convinced the mother that her daughter was simply studying too much and that her brain was not getting a chance to rest enough. Because she was fond of painting and badminton, I had her cut down on two hours of her tuition and study time. As a result, her energy levels rose significantly—and so did her marks.

In short, don’t view play as a waste of time, or time lost that could have been better utilized for studying. View it as a necessary part of sharpening your kids’ axes.

Identify and celebrate their uniqueness

I want to finish off with the same point I made at the start. Never forget that all children possess unique attributes that make them special. Take time to find out what these are, and help them find a niche in school where they can excel rather than expect them to become toppers in all subjects. Celebrate their successes and help them play to their strengths, as this will empower their self-esteem and fuel their motivation. Take for example a couple who came to me with their 14 year old son who was losing interest in studies and in risk of failing. His parents were baffled because their son displayed obvious signs of intelligence with his voracious appetite for reading the latest books on the environment. I noticed that a look of contempt came over the boy’s face when the father started complaining about how he had begun to do badly in some subjects. But when I began asking the boy about his interest in nature and wildlife, he suddenly became animated and he spoke very articulately about environmental conservation. I eventually convinced his parents to feed his interests, explaining that it would indirectly boost his concentration, studiousness and ultimately, his marks. I was right. And though he didn’t necessarily become a topper, he definitely rose far out of the danger zone.

This same logic applies to the process of career selection. With the burgeoning economy and range of available good-paying jobs in non-traditional sectors, there are few reasons why you should force your kids to become engineers, doctors, or lawyers, when they would be better suited as animators, airhostesses or ethical hackers. The obvious example of this is Farhan in 3 Idiots who discovered that he made a better photographer than an engineer. This is not to say that you need to support your kids’ dreams if they are genuinely whimsical. However, you will significantly increase their chances of finding career success if you guide them to professions that match with their abilities and innate tendencies.

Steven Rudolph is an American educationist, researcher, TV personality and public speaker based in India. As Educational Director of the Jiva Institute and founder of Jiva Public School, he has developed many innovative learning materials for children and products and services that promote global skills and Indian values. A pioneer in constructivist teaching methodologies, Rudolph is also a proponent of the novel educational concept, ‘Multiple Natures’ and has wide following in India. His book, The 10 Laws of Learning was published by Random house India in 2009.

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3 responses to “Steven Rudolph – How to push your kids, without pushing them over the edge

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-01-19 « Unjustly·

    • The article in the newspaper was noteworthy and informative.. But the question is “how many parents are aware of this and what are they doing about it?” It is important that the Psychological Counsellors and Principals of schools are made aware of this, so that they make it mandatory for the parents to attend the sessions which they in turn conduct. At the same time the Education Boards need, also , to inculcate this finding in their curriculum designing.

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