Hard Work vs Raw Talent

Why instilling admiration for hard work rather than raw talent is the key to fostering a well-adjusted mind.

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” He recounts:

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.

Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?


Occupational Therapy (OT): Why Do So Many Children need it?

This article is borrowed from, with local input and images from SingleDadDays.

A harsh reality I have come to learn about separate parenting is that one parent can’t parent for the other. It can be a bitter pill, especially when you see parenting behaviour directly contrary to what you believe are healthy values. I’m not talking physical abuse.

In fact as long as the child is not being physically abused, a parent can pretty much do what he or she wishes, irrespective of whether or not it’s good for the child. It’s easy for a 7 /8 /9 year-old child (especially a boy) to end up at occupational therapy if they aren’t given play-dates with mates, climbing, running and roughhousing – those activities that help develop their muscle tone. Climbing trees and messing around with other boys only every two weeks, for two days, for example, is insufficient, and will probably result in that unnecessary visit to the OT therapist. As parents, we have to be aware of a child’s developing needs, as the years from 0-12 are critical to their development. The below article is a instructive at many levels.

“When Dina Petringa’s son, Winston, was born, he was “definitely on the ‘floppy’ side,” she says. At ten months he was diagnosed with “hypotonia” – low muscle tone – which can present various developmental challenges. Through California’s early intervention program, at 18 months Winston began to receive occupational therapy (OT), a type of hands-on intervention designed to help children (and adults) perform the tasks that make up daily life, from writing to concentrating to motor skills to following classroom rules.



While Petringa, who lives in Los Angeles, is positive that Winston benefited from OT, she says her intuition tells her that Winston was just “a bit of a forest creature – a quiet boy with developmental delays” that he might eventually have “evolved” out of on his own schedule. But in navigating the system, she did encounter parents with children who, in a different generation, would just have been called “late bloomers,” she says, “and who now want OT to get extra help.” To be sure, the increased availability of OT has allowed us to identify and treat issues that might have left certain not-quite-special-needs kids floundering back when today’s parents of young kids were in school. But when we were in school we also weren’t expected to know how to add 3 + 1 by the time we were four. Is it today’s intense, achievement-oriented school culture or what some have called “the learning-disability industrial complex” – and not the eccentric, poky, or “different” kids – that needs an intervention?


What no one denies is that there has been a boom in OT in the past 20 years, as students with disabilities from mild to severe have received special education services, including occupational therapy, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975. Data from the Department of Education shows that between 1991 and 2001, the number of five-year-olds receiving special services under IDEA increased 31 percent; the number of four-year-olds increased 76 percent; three-year-olds by 94 percent. The numbers have continued to rise. But the prevalence of occupational therapy today is also measured more anecdotally: in the not-uncommon waits of several months for services, or even preliminary evaluations, both in schools and in private practices.

“OT is definitely on the rise,” says Shannon Roberson, founder of the Total Poss-Abilities pediatric occupational therapy clinic in Oklahoma City, who was inspired to go into OT when her first son, now 10, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Although Roberson ascribes much, though not all, of the intense demand she sees for OT to increased incidence (or at least awareness) of autism – according to the CDC’s 2009 figures, 1 in 110 8-year-olds had an autism spectrum disorder in 2006, up 57 percent since 2002 – OT is also commonly used to treat manifestations of ADHD, ADD and, more and more, sensory processing disorder (SPD). With SPD, the brain has trouble handling information from the senses, resulting, for example, in unmanageable aversion to certain smells, sounds, fabrics – even to sitting still. Where in the past the consequent restlessness, overstimulation, or total freakout might have been considered bad behavior, now kids with these issues may be evaluated for OT.img_5502 ABUSE OF OCCUPAITONAL THERAPY: PRESSURE & SUCKERED PARENTS?

No one’s really questioning whether OT is legitimate or effective, for isolated delays or full-blown disorders. One thing that has come into question, though, is OT’s alleged misuse by uber-parents – as portrayed in a recent New York Times article, for example – whose kids, they fear, will flunk their interview at a fancy preschool if (God forbid!) at age three they still hold a crayon with their fist. “There was this pressure: if your kid is not making X milestone by X age, you need to ‘get evaluated!’” says Tawnya Gibson, now of Salt Lake City, of her experience while living in San Diego. (Her late-to-talk son, after OT in California, has now caught up with his peers.) “When you’re a first-time mom, it can really freak you out. I was even like, ‘What if his limitations are my fault? If I hadn’t scrubbed that tub that one time and inhaled fumes!’”

Still, the implication that OT is just a trendy tool of the Ivy-bound rankles experts and parents alike. “Parents do not want their kids ID’d as needing any kind of therapy,” says Paula McCreedy, a founding partner of New York City’s Special Programs in Occupational Therapy Services (SPOTS). “Parents want their children to be happy, to have fun, to play.” img_5047One Manhattan mother, whose 5-year-old daughter was recommended for OT (for an apparent brain-body disconnection that caused general “klutziness” and reading and writing delays) by her public school teacher, did not rush to get an evaluation until her daughter started to show signs of distress (“I’ll never learn to read and write!”) “In our school, at least, this is not some privileged white person trendy diagnosis,” says the girl’s mother. “This is not the fibromyalgia of the elementary school set.”


What some experts cite as a more pressing concern than fussy parents or fancy schools is the academic rigor of your average kindergarten. “There’s so much pressure to move them through the curriculum,” says McCreedy, speaking of today’s educational culture in general. “There is a developmentally appropriate rate and time for all these tasks. School is supposed to socialize our children to participate in society. But when we start pushing them too quickly we don’t realize that there are other foundational skills that are as important.” With school standards intensifying and school budgets shrinking, children are expected to accomplish much more, much sooner and often with less recess. If, for example, you need to know all your letters and numbers by kindergarten, you’re going to need to sit still at some point to learn them. If so many kids have trouble with that, do we need to evaluate them – or the ramped-up expectations?

“I’ve been in kindergartens where the kids are expected to sit in circle time for 30, 40 minutes – that is too long,” says Shannon Roberson, the Oklahoma City OT. “Then they’re cutting out recess and PE time which kids need in order to be able to go back and focus in class, whether they have sensory and attention issues or not.”


Likewise, when it comes to the 3 Rs, it seems they’re teaching too much of the 1st and 3rd, not enough of the 2nd. By many reports – and as kids spend more of their time typing or texting than writing – lessons in “penmanship” are rare. And when it comes to kids on the less dexterous end of the spectrum, more handwriting instruction could go a long way, experts say. (Kids these days are more likely to eat with their hands than with forks – hello, chicken nuggets and fries – which can also delay manual dexterity.)img_5117Larger economic and societal issues, such as affordable childcare and family-unfriendly workplaces, mean many children are in school too long to begin with, points out one occupational therapist in Brooklyn, NY who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some kids are in school from 8 to 6, if you count the after-school program,” she said. “How frazzled are you at the end of a workday that long?”

This is not to say OT isn’t a godsend for those who need it or that all problems warranting OT would magically disappear if we brought recess and penmanship back and let kids read and add at their own pace. OT, McCreedy argues, should be part of a “wellness” as opposed to “deficit” model in which all children are given the best possible opportunity to function and participate in their world. But perhaps the explosion of OT is, in part, a symptom of an educational system that, in its focus on helping kids perform, may sometimes fail to help them flourish, quirks and all. There’s no more, “Eh, he’s a late bloomer,” says the Brooklyn OT. “That’s great for business, but it’s a little ridiculous.”


Frogging For Kids

There can be few greater joys for a young child than being exposed to the natural world at a young age. Those early days of catching frogs, chasing butterflies and feeling the bark of a tree is a gift. It’s also natural, especially for boys; I give Fynn a net, he says ‘let’s go catch frogs !’

Fynn followed a little bloke named Noah - not this child on the right - from the picnic spot to the stream rushing down the mountain 'cos he had a fishing net. Luckily we had one in the car. Noah was catching frogs and tadpoles in a scary fashion - but we soon had three in the bag. Fynn was worried about the other kids having a bucket. Where was ours? I explained the virtues of catch 'n release.

They don’t know it yet, but introducing children to the natural world on their own terms allows for a subconscious appreciation of the world in which they are connected to, are part of. It also stimulates their curiosity.

As much as they enhance skills probably essential to our children’s social and professional development, iPads and phones are not part of their natural world. This randomly selected link speaks to that subject

Nets are good for frogs, almost essential. A bucket of sorts is useful for holding the creatures caught. My son likes to catch them with his hands when a net isn’t available, as in the picture below with his mate and her two children in one of the ponds at Kistenbosch Botanical gardens*. ‘Hey dad, check this out” or ‘I’ve got one!’ he shouts, pure happiness ringing out across the weekday afternoon ripples. When it’s hot, this is literally a cool environment for the children (and you).


Some adults, probably most, don’t like slimy and squirmy things in their hands. Probably because they never held them as little children. Much like I’ve always hated slugs, and snails.

I got over that manic wriggling of worms when I got my own worm farm, and the snails, oh the snails…I eventually ate one in my 30-somethings in yes, France, which incidentally tasted like a mushroom vol-au-vent.

Frogs are easy to handle, and their little hearts tire quickly. So tempering my boy’s sometimes relentless pursuit is sometimes necessary, with the little amphibian’s legs simply unable to kick anymore. Putting them in a container or lunchbowl allows the kids to return and check their haul when it’s time to call it a day.


So allowing them to play and hold such things now is really doing them a favour. Especially the guys. Apart from that, for children there large lawns in beautifully manicured gardens (no ball sports) paved paths, dirt-trails and the funky, designer  tree canopy-bridge called ‘boomslang’. Perfect for picnics.

Check out