In the February 4 issue of The New Yorker’s profile of Dr. Oz (“The Operator” by Michael Specter), a few lines about Oz’s childhood caught my attention:
“The only question my father ever asked me was: Did anyone do better than you?” Oz said, with a wistful smile. “If I came home, proud and excited, with a ninety-seven on an exam, he would ask if somebody got a higher grade. And if George or Tom got a ninety-eight then I might as well have failed.”
Obviously, requiring his son to achieve at such a high level instilled a hunger for success, and the discipline to achieve it. Talk about hard work: Dr. Oz not only has his own show and appears all over the media, but he still performs heart surgery once a week. It’s a crazy schedule.
On the other hand, Oz’s father sounds pretty cold. (Perhaps that accounts for the wistfulness in Oz’s smile.) Out of 100, a 97 is a mark of success; does it matter what George or Tom scored?
The question of standards is a pressing one for parents and teachers alike. How do you measure success? How do you fan the desire to achieve in your child without smothering them in criticism?
At this early point in my son’s life, I don’t have to worry about this from an academic perspective, but I do hold standards for his behavior. I consider a successful class or play date to be one in which Felix is polite and friendly, un-aggressive, and listens to adults. I understand conflicts will arise between kids over toys or what to do, but I want those conflicts to be resolved through words instead of actions. It doesn’t bother me if Felix has to remove himself in order to calm down, or goes off to do his own thing he can be solitary, as long as he’s not mean or destructive.
Of course, being a three-and-a-half-year-old boy, I’m not sure if he’s ever met all of these goals, even though they sound reasonable to me. I could press him about it, enumerating his failures after every play date. Indeed, I’ve done so, to which Felix usually shuts down. I’ve learned instead to ask him how he thought the play date went. Usually Felix’s take on things is right on he’s able to articulate if he was, on the whole, nice to his friend, and when things don’t go smoothly he talks about it.
To me, that’s a sign he’s assessing himself, and ultimately, that’s what I would like him to be able to do. I felt the same about my students when I was a teacher. (I taught middle school English and Humanities for five years in New York and Shanghai.) I would ask my students: Is this your best work? That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it just means that it’s something you worked hard on, and sweated over, and that you approached with rigor.
Not every kid is going to be able to reach a perfect score, but that doesn’t mean they’re not achieving to the best of their abilities. Maybe a 97, or an 85, is cause for celebration. Overly-high standards can actually harm a kid’s performance: I was never great at math, for example, and the more I worried about my grade, the worse I did. Just as every kid has talents, they also have weaknesses. We need to help our children be aware of both, I think, and not expect them to performance-bots, achieving perfection in every area.
I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Oz’s father asked him, “is 97 a mark you’re proud of, or do you think you could do a better job?” My sense is that Oz would still be where he is today, and he might actually look back with less regret, and more pleasure, on his childhood interactions with his dad.