Why Having High Expectations For Our Kids Is Good For Them

Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

I’m sure you’ve heard about the power of positive thinking, but have you ever considered the reverse — how negative thinking might adversely affect you, or your children?

The New York Times reported on two economists who tried to figure out why girls don’t perform as strongly in math as boys. The researchers came to a surprising, and sad, conclusion. Girls don’t do as well in math because their teachers expect less of them.

The researchers administered tests to students from sixth grade to high school, and then had two groups of teachers assess them. One group received anonymous tests with no names. The second got tests with names. When graded anonymously, the girls outperformed the boys, but in the named-group, the boys were scored more leniently and the girls more harshly. Not surprisingly, the boys ended up doing better. The researchers repeated this experiment in other subjects, but found the results varied by gender only in math, not other areas.

So then, in truth, girls don’t do worse at math, teachers just think they do, and so teach and grade accordingly. Teacher expectations make a huge impact on students. Slate points to a few studies that demonstrate this phenomenon, called the “Pygmalion effect.” If a teacher believes a child has an aptitude for some skill or subject area, then that teacher — either through their attitude, or by holding higher expectations, or giving the child extra-enrichment, or all of these things — ends up making it true. This new study demonstrates the opposite works as well. If a teacher thinks a child can not do something well – like math – then that becomes the student’s reality.

I’ve experienced this both in my own life, and as a parent. In seventh grade, a teacher told me that I was very smart, but a horrible test-taker. She didn’t offer any advice on how to improve myself, she just lobbed that criticism bomb at me one day in front of the class. What happened? Every time I took a test after that, for years, I thought of how I just wasn’t a good test taker. Sure enough, I never did as well on tests as I would have liked, especially high stakes ones like the SAT. I suffered from terrible anxiety that, I believe, brought my grade down. It wasn’t until years later, in therapy in my early 20s, that I realized how fully I had internalized her opinion of me. Because I thought of myself as weak performer before I even began, I then performed below my skill level. It was frustrating, but it never occurred to me that this was in my power to change.

As a parent, it was heartrending to see this happen to my son, Felix. When he started part-time pre-school as a toddler, he began exhibiting the aggressive, anxious behavior that we’re still working to curb today. After a couple of months, his teacher branded him a bad boy, and she’d greet him with disciplinary messages like, “Am I going to have to keep a close eye on you today?” At pick-up she’d give me a long report, in front of him, on all the ways in which he misbehaved. Once, when I went to leave without speaking to her, Felix stopped me and said, “Don’t you want to hear what I did wrong today, Da-da?”

His entire identity in school was as a trouble-maker. Other teachers who worked with him told us about his sweet nature, and the small kindnesses they witnessed him do for his friends. But the lead teacher, the one who set the tone for the room, considered him a bad element, and so his behavior became worse and worse as the year progressed.

Because of that experience, my wife and I decided to keep him out of school for a year. When he was four, he still had socializing problems, but we found they improved mid-year when his teachers stopped focusing on his negative behavior and started praising him when he was good. This year, in kindergarten, his teachers have found this strategy works great too. They try to take time out each day at pick-up to tell me something that he did well, and he loves hearing this. Both at school and at home we’ve told him, “You’re a good boy. You’ll learn to control yourself one day. You have a kind heart. You can be a good friend.” These positive messages have made an impact on his self-image, and he’s begun to have friends, and play-dates, and not just days but whole weeks in which his interactions are largely positive ones.

It is so important, whether you’re a parent or a teacher, to focus on your child’s positive behavior and attributes, in particular when addressing an area of weakness, whether it be academic or behavioral. This is also true, I think, when fighting social stereotypes. I talk often with my son about his feelings, about how it’s OK to feel things, and talk about them, and ask for hugs, or cry. I try diligently to work against the messages about what it means to “be a man” that he might be receiving culturally, through television shows, or from his peers. Similarly, we must make sure our little girls know that they are just as smart and capable as boys, in every area. Always’ #likeagirl campaign illustrated this beautifully in the ad that aired during the Superbowl. Little girls believe they can do anything, but by adolescence, those aspirations have become curtailed, in part because of messages like, “You throw like a girl,” or “Girls aren’t good at math.”

When we tell kids they can’t do something, they listen. So be careful choosing your words, because, just like magic, the negative things you say today might become your child’s future.

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