BY MARGARET BERNSTEIN KELLER
This is the third blog post I’ve written in the office I’ve carved out in a corner of my son’s empty bedroom. I have to admit, this is a pretty meaningful place to sit and reflect on parenting. Now that he’s off to college with his brand-new laptop, wardrobe and school supplies, the things he left behind spark a lot of memories and thoughts in this mom’s mind about what it takes to raise a boy to manhood.
There’s enough fodder in this room to last me quite a while.
Today I’m looking at two shelves full of trophies. Above my head are basketball and baseball trophies, dating back to when he was a 4-year-old playing teeball.
Lately I’ve been sitting at my son’s desk eagerly reading a just-released book, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. This is a fascinating book with thought-provoking insights for every parent who wants successful children – which of course is all of us. I recommend it to you in its entirety, but for now I’m going to fast-forward to its conclusion: which is that the chief factors that predict a child’s future success have nothing to do with the family’s socioeconomic level or how many sports or music lessons we sign our kids up for. Success has a lot more to do with whether our kids have important character traits like grit, perseverance and curiosity. You might assume these qualities are innate in one’s personality – either you have ‘em or you don’t — but Tough’s book makes it clear that they’re by no means etched in stone. A child who is in the habit of giving up after a failure can be taught to try yet again. A youth who wants instant gratification can be trained to hang in there for the long haul. Tough writes intriguingly about one urban school that has actually developed a character “report card” and trains students to develop the personality traits that will help them thrive in college and beyond.
As I soaked in all this information, I couldn’t stop thinking about the years of trophies on my son’s shelf, and reflecting on that old debate surrounding these gold-plated figurines. Some people feel strongly that America started going downhill when babyboomers became over-indulgent parents and started giving their kids trophies just for participating in sports. For years, I wasn’t sure about how I felt about this debate. I’ve got a picture of my son excitedly clutching a baseball trophy at around age 6 that attests to how happy he was when he got that golden souvenir. But now that figurine is forgotten and gathering dust. In the long run, it wasn’t something he cherished – not like the eighth grade basketball trophy that commemorated his team’s trip to semifinals of the district championship. That one meant more. Because his team earned it.
Now that I’ve finished “How Children Succeed,” I feel like my philosophy about trophies – and a lot of other issues– has evolved. Handing out trophies to kids just for participating isn’t a good investment; I get that now. But if we make it clear that we expect kids to master a set of skills while they’re on the baseball diamond – even if it’s just learning to run the bases in order, probably the biggest accomplishment of that first teeball summer – then sure, a trophy, a certificate, a reward of some type is fine. Actually, I’m more convinced now than ever that trophies shouldn’t just go to superstars. We should just do a better job of tying rewards to skill mastery. Every kid that gets up after a failure and keeps improving deserves applause. And they also should be encouraged to strive for the next rung. This is how we demystify success, and teach kids that it’s within their power to attain it.