One of my mom’s favorite jokes was about the guy searching under the streetlamp for his lost silver dollar. “Where did you lose the coin?” his friend inquires. “I’ll help you look.”
“I dropped it over there in the woods.”
“Then why are you looking here under the streetlamp?”
“Because it’s dark in the woods.”
Is it possible that pretty much everything we are trying so assiduously to communicate to our beloved children is brutally misguided? When we emphasize cognitive capability and academic achievement, are we forcing our kids to look under the streetlamp for something valuable that we know to be elsewhere?
Much of the parenting advice I read about or hear in my office strikes me as highly suspect. Following are three of the worst:
1) The “If/Then/Else Approach”:
a) If Susie finishes her book then I will give her a pizza. (Which will result in what my buddy, Alfie Kohn, describes as, “A bunch of fat kids who don’t like to read.”)
b) If 15-year-old Tommy will stop smoking pot long enough to leave his room and eat some chicken nuggets, then I will buy him an expensive car.
Something has gone desperately off the rails here. Indeed, this train may be out of the barn because, my mixed metaphor notwithstanding, your children are neither software nor Labradors. If/then/else, behaviorism, punishments and rewards are all very well and good for teaching pigeons to play ping-pong. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping for a better relationship with my child than that of a graduate student and a number of imprisoned birds.
2) The “He’s Good at this, Why isn’t He Good at that?”
Paul Dirac was said to be a clever enough lad—Ph.D at 23, Nobel Prize at 31, predicted the existence of antimatter, that sort of thing. Dirac had the Lucasian chair at Cambridge, an appointment shared over time with Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. Dirac also formulated the Dirac Equation which I would be happy to explain to you if either of us had even the vaguest possibility of understanding any part of it. You might argue, “Of course Dirac formulated the ‘Dirac Equation.’ His name was Dirac after all. He could not have formulated the Heisenberg Equation. If physicists ran around naming their equations after their colleagues rather than themselves the whole field of physics would be even more of a staggering befuddlement than it is already to say nothing of the problem of indexing.” But I think the issue of naming equations misses my broader point which is only that Dirac was wicked smart.
He was also, apparently, a lousy dad. When asked about his children, Dirac said, “Don’t much like them.” Can you imagine anything sadder than not liking your own kids?
Dirac was pals with Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger. They deciphered secrets of the universe, got Nobel Prizes, tried to meet girls. When Enrico Fermi and Dirac came up with Fermi-Dirac statistics for “half-integer-spin particles” they did not, to my knowledge, think about calling their discovery the Fermi-Altshuler statistics. But what I’m getting at here is there is no reason to believe that just because Dirac predicted the existence of the positron, (the antiparticle of the more popular and better known, electron,) that he would be a loving father. Obviously the two abilities—trying to understand the mind of God and engendering meaningful connection with your children--have nothing to do with one another. So why, do parents consistently ask, “Enrique has an A in math, why doesn’t he try harder and also get an A in Spanish?” It makes as much sense as wondering why someone can play professional football but has trouble finding his keys. The one skill—running into and knocking down other large people—has nothing to do with putting the darn ring on the hook by the door.
3) Grades, ability, intellect, and achievement are more important than motivation, balance, insight, and sense of self. No, they’re not. Are smart people happier than their more average peers? What? Now, I’m expected to do actual research when writing these Tuesday musings? I haven’t the first idea whether or not super-smart folks are happier than their normally achieving peers. I do see any number of accomplished, stressed out, miserable students. Indeed, “students in high-achieving schools are now named an ‘at-risk’ group” finds a consensus study of The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine." So, I’m guessing that stress not smarts is correlated with sadness.
Rather than emphasizing “Dartmouth or Die” or relying on a definition of abortion that suggests “an embryo is a fetus until it graduates medical school,” let’s focus on those attributes that are much more likely to contribute to the long-term health and happiness of our kids: motivation must take precedence over achievement or ability; sense of self trumps accomplishment; being valued unconditionally takes precedence over accolades. It’s easy to work on equations and receive prizes if that’s what you’re good at. It’s harder to go out into the woods where it’s dark and look for the silver dollar. It's also tough to insist on finding a way to enjoy your children. If forced to choose only one, I’d rather have a good relationship with my kids than a Nobel Prize in Physics any day especially given that almost anyone can learn how to have a conversation with the children living in his home whereas a Nobel Prize in physics in more rare.
Not that anyone is knocking down my door asking how the Altshuler Equation is coming along.