I had an experience with my daughter recently which opened my eyes to the pressure children can feel to succeed, a feeling which I know all too well as an adult. It can be both a driving force and a crippling stress in life.
We were out for lunch with a group of friends and their children, as expected the children were offered crayons and paper and began to draw. We were very proud of my daughter months ago when she began drawing faces, then adding arms, legs and eventually hair! At the same time, her friend had drawn a whole person, using all the colours, covering every inch of the page. I noticed my daughter see her picture and stop in awe. As her friend showed the adults around the table they all exclaimed, “Wow”, “Amazing” and “That’s so good, well done.” I watched as my daughter looked from her own picture to her friends and back. She turned to her Mother and in a sad voice asked, “Can I have more paper?” It was written plainly on her face that she had begun comparing her picture with her friend’s and had come to the conclusion that hers wasn’t as good, she went on to try and copy the picture her friend had drawn.
Let me say now that I don’t have a problem with praising children, but as her friend turned to me and showed me her picture, what would I say? It was a good picture, impressive to say the least! But what would my response communicate?
“Amazing.” “Good job.” “Well done.” “A*” “100%” “10/10!”
High praise indeed, however, I want us to stop a moment and question: Do these responses praise the child? Or do they evaluate the success of their work? Either way, the child gets a little jolt of joy and appreciation from the response, however, one builds their self-esteem, the other draws them into a common way of thinking; that their self-worth is closely linked with their success and achievements.
60% of young people (aged 18 to 24) have felt so stressed by pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation.
Let’s imagine if the responses in my story were different:
“That’s a very colourful picture!”
“I can see you’ve worked hard on that!”
“It’s a person wearing a dress!”
“Can I have a closer look?”
What might these responses communicate to the child? How might these responses make my daughter feel? These responses level the playing field, there is no competition or grade of success. They treat the children fairly regardless of their ability or performance, affirming what they have done without a value added on.
I wonder how these responses may relate to a child’s results on a test?
A child who got an A* at English – That’s great, I see you have a strength in English
A child who got 2/20 in a Math’s Test- Okay, maybe we can work together on your Maths?
In our Citywise Curriculum, one of our key character strengths is Fairness. We discuss with children how fairness is different from ‘treating everybody equally’, if that were true it would be fair to expect every child to achieve the same grades at the same subjects, after all, they are equals. Instead, fairness is celebrating with a child when they succeed at their strengths and supporting a child when they are struggling and finding a way for them to grow and offering that to every child unconditionally.
We believe that this ability to treat other people fairly and to model fairness to our children will unlock their potential and help them to thrive in their passion and purpose in life.