The rat race
The rat race these days begins at a very junior level with children. Children are put on the treadmill even before they begin school. In the past, children attended school in order to learn. Now, they are expected to be learned in order to get into school. In this scenario, children are constantly driven to achieve; they encounter a test around every corner. Their self-esteem becomes a barometer of their successes and failures. Parents should have the ability to guide their children so that both their successes as well as their failures are positive learning experiences.
To deal with success and failure in a healthy manner, it is important that children develop the right attitude towards learning. They must realize the importance of learning in itself, as well as the necessity to do well. Once they have realized what it means to do well, they begin to set their own goals and standards of achievement and judge how close their performance comes to matching their set goals. Children soon learn how to look outwards and become aware of others' expectations of them. This leads them to entertain certain beliefs about their abilities. As their horizons widen, they come to understand that their achievements affect others beside themselves and thus take on a social value.
School can be quite stressful for children with constant examinations and competitions. While some children thrive in such an environment, it can sometimes have the opposite effect of killing initiative and the desire to achieve. Children feel that they are being pressured to prove their abilities. They would rather retire from the competition and play it safe than stay in the game and see if they can win. Parents can help their children by making them perceive tests or projects as interesting or challenging activities, rather than a test of their abilities. Thus instead of saying, "Let's see how quickly you can solve these problems", parents could say, "Why don't you try to solve these problems."
Parents should try to avoid categorizing their children's intellectual abilities. If you express the opinion that your child is a 'poor speller' or that 'mathematics is not his strong point', it is almost as if you are giving your child permission to give up and not attempt to improve his performance. Instead you should try saying, "This is a difficult problem" or "That is a complicated word." The child gets the message that the problem lies with the task and not with his ability. He must be made to feel that his intelligence is flexible and can be applied to any task. He must understand that it requires effort and hard work to reach his goal.
While some parents discourage their children's achievements by being excessively critical, other parents achieve the same effect with excessive praise. Parents who gush over everything their children do are well-intentioned, but unrealistic. Protecting their children from criticism all the time can backfire. If children get the message that everything they do is 'brilliant' or 'the best', it demotivates them. They cease to feel the need to make any efforts to improve their performance. This also inhibits their ability to develop their own standards of performance. They become confused, not knowing what is really good. Parents should keep in mind that they are not the only judges of their children's performance and ability. Children have to be taught to live in the real world. In school, their teachers and peers constantly evaluate children. Children are also perceptive enough to judge their performance against that of their peers. In such a situation, constant and indiscriminate praise from parents can have an adverse effect. Such parents disappoint their children because the children feel that while they are striving to better themselves, their parents are content with the status quo.
Accurate assessment of children's abilities and giving constructive criticism is the best approach. Do not discourage children from setting high standards for themselves. But be around to encourage them if they are dissatisfied with their achievements. Help them to identify ways in which they can improve their performance while reminding them that they have still achieved something.
In control of success and failure
Success and failure are not simplistic concepts. Success and failure are not automatically 'good' and 'bad' respectively. Success and failure are the result of the interplay between ability, effort, luck, help and a host of other circumstances. For instance, a child may come first in races on several occasions and may not place at all on others. The child must be able to ascribe the correct reasons for his success or failure. Success or failure is not always a reflection of one's ability. The child may be a good athlete, but on the day he loses a race it may be because his competitors are better, or that he just did not try hard enough, or that he was tired, etc. It is important that the child comprehend that all these factors do not lessen his athletic ability in any way. However, if after losing a couple of races, a child ascribes his successes to luck or a 'fluke', he will approach every race with a feeling of anxiety and uncertainty because he does not know what to expect from himself. He will lack confidence in his abilities.
Children must feel that they have a measure of control over their successes and failures. Parents can help their children understand this by discussing with them why they fared well or poorly. For instance, parents can tell their child that he did well in his English test because he was so well prepared or that he did poorly because he did not bother to learn his spellings. Even bright children can do badly because overconfidence in their natural ability makes them think that they do not need to put in any extra effort. These children need to be made aware that their natural ability needs to be nurtured by consistent hard work and preparation. If a child is faring badly at school, his parents can discuss with him ways and means by which he can improve his performance. This will make the child feel that he is capable of doing well. It's just that he has not gone about it the right way.
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