The Scarlett Ibis School of Parenting

Tami still hadn't taken a step at 24 months. Because her mother carried her everywhere? Because her mother "enabled" Tami in her "addiction" to being enveloped in her mother's arms? "How will she learn to walk if you just carry her everywhere?" helpful strangers suggested. "Put the baby down and she'll walk"

No, she won't. Tami has some developmental delays including fairly severe cognitive impairments and an organic neuro-muscular problem. Her family's lovely pediatrician was able to pick up on the disabilities. Tami, now 13 with the intellectual capability of a five year-old, loves to play dress up, goes to the bathroom by herself, goes to school and walks beautifully on her own. Her parents adore her. They are OK with the fact that Tami will neither learn to play the violin nor get a PhD in philosophy from Princeton.

Tami's disabilities were diagnosed by a gifted doctor. But what if her differences were more subtle, harder to perceive? What if, oblivious to Tami's capability, her parents had screamed at her, threatened and punished, promised and rewarded, coerced and cajoled? What if they had been ashamed of their daughter's differences? "All the other children are taking their first steps at a year" they might have said. We better put her down on the carpet. If she doesn't accept the responsibility of walking, then we'll just leave her there. We'll incentivize her. If she doesn't walk over here to the table then we just won't feed her. That way she'll learn to walk.

Before calling the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, consider just how many families inadvertently mistreat their children in exactly this way.

"He's bright; he just doesn't want to study."

"He chooses not to do his homework."

"He's not studying because he knows how much it annoys me when he gets bad grades.

Nah.

It's not about you. It seems like it's about you, but it's not. You love your kids so much and you want what's best for them, but their poor performance doesn't have anything to do with you. Their poor performance affects you. But it's not about you.

Kids want to do well. Here's why they don't:

1) They're distracted by screens. Many kids will eat potato chips rather than balanced, healthy meals if given a chance. Kids will play World of War craft rather than read "The Hobbit," "Sounder," "A Wrinkle in Time," or "Rabbit Hill." Most kids will watch TV rather than learn spatial relations and engineering by playing with legos. The majority of adolescents would prefer to play "Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Blood, Blood, Blood, Kill, Kill, Kill" rather than learning fractions by baking cookies and selling lemonade. That's why screen time should be severely limited if not eliminated. Not only is what's happening on the screen damaging in itself, it's what the kids aren't doing when they're plugged in that is so harmful.

2) They have issues with drugs or alcohol.

Adolescent brains are still developing through age 25. Do the math.

3) The curriculum is mind numbingly boring and meaningless. Imagine being asked to memorize the names of the 67 counties in Florida. Visualization imagery notwithstanding--"See the Manatee standing on the Orange next to the Gulf made out of Clay?"--could you force yourself to do something so--for want of a better word--stupid? A class of Miami-Dade eighth graders were.

4) The students are lacking a skill--a skill understanding the likely result of their actions, a skill regarding keeping their emotions in check, a thinking skill, a time management skill--some kind of skill. For a more thorough and eloquent explanation, see Dr. Ross Greene's wonderful book, Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them.

In order to help our children develop to the highest and most appropriate level of academic achievement and contentment, the research is clear: yell at them until they achieve what you want them to do. Control their every thought and action. Force them to play the violin. Insist that they be first in their class. Be clear that you love them only for what they do not for who they are.

Just kidding. The "Scarlett Ibis School of Parenting" in only even marginally appropriate with kids who have the horses to begin with. And even with super smart kids, The Scarlett Ibis School of Parenting produces high achievers as often as Harry Harlow produced happy monkeys. In my office, I seldom have to help parents make a choice between having high achieving kids and having happy kids, but if I did, I know what I'd advise. Helping kids achieve the most they can given who they are is done by having high expectations and lots of unconditional positive regard. If you could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, you'd still have one unhappy pig.

No adolescent ever woke up in the morning and said, "I have an idea! I'll do poorly in school so I can get negative attention. I'll be a pariah to my family, my teachers will be mean to me, and I'll get all kinds of great detentions and other punishments! I'll get started by doing my homework in a thoughtful and complete manner and then deliberately leaving it on my desk.

The scenario above--a student willing and able to do homework and then refusing to turn in the assignment--is as unlikely as two year-old Tami "choosing" not to walk.

As always, thank you for reading. I can't wait to see your responses.

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