Monday, January 24, 2011

Does your 9 year old have a mission statement?

A mission statement is typically reserved for corporations and board rooms. Disney has a good one that seems to work for them: "We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere."  However, a personal mission statement can provide direction, affirmation and motivation to individuals as well. 

When working on personal mission statements with my undergraduate students we focus on the positives.  At the age of 20 when getting a job is high on the agenda we are looking at how the mission statement can help them focus on getting into a specific company or position that is right for them.  We also talk about how the mission statement can be used in a job interview or when writing a cover letter.  But why wait until your child is in college to run through this exercise with them?

What is a mission statement? I ended up with this definition for my son.  A mission statement is a sentence or paragraph about yourself.  It usually includes your goals and things that are important to you. I then came up with a few questions that I thought would be easy for a 9 year old to think about.  I tried to keep them short and simple.
  1. What do you want your friends to say about you?  This question is easier to answer if you pick a specific friend.
  2. If you could do any one thing better than you do it now, what would it be?
  3. Who is your hero and why?  It is not important who your daughter idolizes but rather what value or attribute that person represents.  Go ahead and let them be frivolous as well.  At 9 years old it is OK for them to like someone because they are really tall or have a cool music video.

Try to refrain from adding your own parent oriented suggestions.  A mission statement is a personal declaration and means less if someone else puts it together.  If I were to write my son's mission statement for him it would go something like this:

I am obedient and always listen to my father, mother and teachers.
I love homework and try to finish it neatly and promptly soon after getting home.
I always clean up after myself.
I want to be a lawyer or a doctor when I get older so that I can support my parents in their old age.

Here is what he actually wrote:

I will be a good friend who is funny, nice and has lots of energy.  
I will play and learn soccer like Messi.

I think I like his better.

I have seen several suggestions regarding a family mission statement.  I think this is a good approach but by 9 years old you will be surprised at how much your son and daughter thinks about their life.  Give them a chance through a personal mission statement to express some of their goals and interests.

It also helps if you write up a mission statement of your own and ask your child to help with it before asking your son to think about his.  This way it does not seem like you are just giving them work to do.  You can call it homework and flip the tables on them.  Given the number of days(7!) in the week my son asks me to help him with his homework  I think he can help me once.

Some of the ideas my son had for me were:

  1. I don't yell at him as much (I did not ask him ..."as much" as who?).  This one we broke down into patience as one of my strengths.
  2. I help him with his homework.  We agreed that this was because I know things (at least more things than a 9 year old).

My actual mission statement:

I am a patient, caring, loyal and dedicated husband and father.
I am optimistic about life and encourage others to believe in themselves and their potential to achieve anything.
I work efficiently for my clients, candidates and students and care about giving them exceptional service.
I am passionate about freedom and the ability to choose my own direction.

A mission statement should be motivating.  It should inspire your child to strive for something whether it is a short term goal or a long term goal.  However, chances are he or she may forget about it as soon as you finish writing it down.  That is OK too.  A mission statement can also affirm your child's values and help them to understand their strengths.  Sitting down and going over what makes your child great will help them to reinforce those qualities and remind us parents as well that are kids are fantastic.

Examples are great so if you make time to write a mission statement with your child please share it below in the comments.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It is OK for kids (and adults) to ask for help

There is often a tendency for parents (like me) to force our kids to do things for themselves.  When they ask for help we say, "figure it out" or "look it up" and feel that we are teaching them to be independent.  It is interesting to note, that success in business is not connected strongly with independence but rather relies on interdependence.  Some of the best executive managers have achieved their success because they are not afraid to ask for help. Proactively recruiting supporters for a project not only helps the project to succeed but displays the manager's abilities as a leader.  Asking for help makes it possible to achieve more than if the manager works alone.  In the book, Blueprint to a Billion: 7 Essentials to Achieve Exponential Growth, one of the essential elements to success for the companies described was that they were managed by a team of two complementary executives.  One focused on sales and the other on operations.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to be an expert in everything.  A willingness to admit this is one of the first steps in asking for help.

A comfort with admitting a weakness or lack of knowledge combined with the confidence that a solution or answer can be found through asking is a valuable attribute.  This is a challenging skill to teach to an adult as most of us have already developed a phobia about admitting any weakness, especially in the workplace.  We will be giving our children a very useful tool by helping them to ask for help early in their lives.

In the job search it can mean the difference between getting the job your child wants and spending another 6 months borrowing from Mom and Dad and moping around the house.  When my son or daughter starts their job search, they will certainly need help and guidance.  Depending on which source you look at, applications to published job advertisements account for less than 30% of jobs filled.  The rest are through networking.  And what is networking? When your child is job hunting it will mean asking for help.  Prior to an interview at their dream company, being able to call or email someone who works there to ask for advice may be the key to acing the interview.

How to ask for help is important and how we respond to our child's requests both in tone and content will decide their ability and willingness to continue asking as they grow up.  Teaching by example is always a good approach.  For young boys it is especially effective if they see their fathers asking for help.

Teach your kids to state clearly what kind of help they are requesting.  If they need help with their homework, make sure they can be specific.  It is important for kids to learn where the line is between asking for help and asking for someone to do their work for them.  Encourage them to explain to you which parts of the homework they already understand and which parts are difficult.  Avoid the easy way out by doing the work for them!  The next step is to ask them what they think they should do.  This process takes patience. It is not the long division that is critical here.  We want out kids to feel that if they need to ask for help, they can do so and we will listen and respond without anger ("Stop wasting my time and get back to work!") or ridicule ("Can't you do anything by yourself?!").  Maybe through this approach it will become easier for me to ask for help as well...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Shake hands like a man! If you want your kids to get the job

When is the last time you told your 2 year old daughter to shake hands like a man?  Never?  Perhaps now is a good time to start.  In a recent meeting with a senior recruiter responsible for screening and interviewing new graduates for a major consulting firm, I learned that the clammy handshake was to blame for more than a few applicants being declined.

A weak, wet handshake can lose our kids their chance at a job even before they sit down for the interview.  A firm handshake is commonly perceived to indicate that your child is sure and confident in themselves.  While the weak handshake is more likely to insure that that the interviewer labels him or her as nervous, shy, insecure or afraid of interacting with people.  That is a lot to overcome in the remaining 38 minutes of a typical new graduate interview.

Yes, there are a hundred legitimate reasons for having a weak handshake including some pretty serious medical issues.  In those cases it is important that the young man or woman being interviewed say something up front to cut off any misperception.  However, if our kids are capable of giving a firm handshake, we can help them to understand that it can make a difference and learn how and when to do it right.

The rules for a "good" handshake are simple.  Grip the whole hand firmly but don't try to overpower the other person, one hand is better than two, shake only 2 or 3 times and then let go.  My wife and I have been shaking hands with our son since he was 1 and started at the same age with my daughter.  To be fair, they actually initiated it after seeing us shake hands with friends.  They both enjoyed feeling like adults and learned quickly how to say, "Nice to meet you".  It is not easy for their little hands to grip completely, especially when shaking hands with an adult but they can certainly experience how we as parents hold their hands.  Our kids have an amazing capacity to store experiences.  Every time they are shown the right way to do something (a handshake in this instance) they will get closer to making it a habit of their own.

An added benefit to this lesson is the physical contact or skinship we parents make with our children. The word "skinship" was invented in Japan and refers to positive and caring physical contact between parent and child.   Touch is an incredibly powerful sense (as can be seen above in how it affects interviewer's perceptions) and just the occasional handshake with our kids can help them (and us!) to feel more relaxed and secure which is a big part of gaining confidence too.  And of course, besides the clammy handshake, a lack of confidence is another reason for interviewers to screen out young job applicants.

Remember, along with shaking hands our kids need to remember to wash them afterwards.  It is flu season after all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Grades matter, they did for the LSAT and will for our kids

Several years ago, soon after graduation from college, my friend took the LSAT and scored in the 53rd percentile.  Very average and not the score you want if you plan to go to a top school.  He took it again 1 year and 6 months later and scored in the 96th percentile which then opened the doors to some of the best law schools in the country.  So, what happened in those 18 months?  He learned how to take the test.  He studied which questions would come up more often, he learned how to judge which ones to leave unanswered and which ones to spend more time on.  In particular for the LSAT, he learned how the questions were asked and the patterns behind them.

Now, a couple questions come to mind about his dramatic improvement on the test.  Did he become a better potential lawyer in between tests?  No, he  always had that potential, it just did not show in the score.  Did he learn anything from studying for the LSAT that will make him a better lawyer?  I doubt it.  He would have been a great lawyer anyway.  Chances are he will never have to use the skills he learned in order to ace the LSAT ever again.  Perhaps the most important thing he took away was that you can not only study for test content but can study for the form of the test as well.  Maybe this also helped him when he passed the Bar Exam a few years later.

In elementary school our kid's grades will be looked at when applying to the best high schools.  High school grades of course will affect which college they can get into and then finally, their college grades will provide another yardstick for companies to eliminate them as candidates.  I have heard many comments and read many articles suggesting that admission to good schools and companies is not about the grades and to some extent that is true.  But, what the articles ignore is that without good grades your kids are not likely to make the first cut and no matter how many leadership positions they held in school or how many volunteer organizations they worked at in the summer, they won't get the interview.

Grades matter, not necessarily because they show anything about your child's true worth but because schools and companies do not have anything else to use that is standardized and easy to compare.  As in the LSAT example above, law schools draw a line at a certain score and if your child is below the line they are out, simple.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the current system and culture surrounding grading, it is important for us as parents to help our kids get the best grades possible.  We can complain and worry and accuse the system of being unfair but while we are doing that, the other kid with a 4.0 GPA will get the interview and the job and my son is still working on his resume.  My wife and I try to take an active role in homework and test prep with our son (certainly as much as time allows).  Following the recent advice on how to praise we are also trying to focus on how hard he studied in order to score that 100% on a recent spelling test rather than just the grade.  However we do also point out that the grades are important.

Kids in elementary school, often in high school and sometimes even in college, don't get it.  They don't have the experience of being rejected yet because of a mediocre GPA and they certainly will not connect it with how their future will develop.  We need to stay on top of them.  After our children start working, their grades will cease to be relevant.  I have yet to have a client ask me the GPA of a candidate for a mid-career job change.  There are also several examples of success where graduates with low GPAs have gone on to achieve great things.  However, isn't it better if our kids have a choice?

Some words of caution.  A 4.0 is not necessary for any but the very top schools and most competitive companies.  A 3.5 and in some cases even a 3.0 is enough.  Also, grades are meaningless if a child's health and mental well being is compromised.  While I  believe that kids need a bit of urging from us (parents and teachers) to reach their potential, we also need to keep our eyes open for signs of excess stress.  Here are a few to watch out for:
1) Change in sleep patterns
2) Change in eating habits
3) Easily annoyed
4) Social withdrawal

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Set your child's mind to it

I had the good fortune of having two parents who told me often that I could do or be anything I want as long as I "set my mind to it".  Isn't that great?  My Mom in particular told me on a daily basis that I could achieve anything.  I grew up with a tremendous amount of confidence and after graduating from college "set my mind" to finding a job and came up short.  It was devastating.

There were two major problems.  The first was that it was not made clear to me that I needed to "set my mind" to something well in advance.  When it comes to finding a job out of college, the decisions our kids make in high school or even earlier can affect the opportunities available later on.  For a career in sports or music our children would have to start getting ready as early as 8 years old in order to make the big time.  Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success talks about studies that have shown that professional athletes put in 10,000 hours in order to become proficient enough in a sport at an age when they will still be competitive (early 20s).  That means they needed to start aggressively at the age of 8 or 9.   In my case I thought I could set my mind to it after graduation...

The second problem was that when my parents were saying "set your mind to it" I was not hearing what they were really trying to tell me.  Perhaps for kids and young adults (and everyone else for that matter) it is better to be direct and precise with our advice.  What my parents should have said and what I am now trying to say to my son and daughter is that they can be or do anything they want in this life if, they work really really hard at it.  That was the key point I missed.  I know now that is what my parents meant.  It is not just about having the right mindset it is about effort and actually putting the time and energy to work towards the goal.

Gary Vaynerchuk also talks about this in his book Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion.  Stating that we (and our kids) can achieve anything if we are willing to work really really hard.

How does this make a difference to a 21 year old kid looking for a job?  The young man who thinks about nothing else but getting into Morgan Stanley and then waits for the positive reply to his cold resume is at a disadvantage to the young woman who works really really hard to get into Morgan Stanley by researching the company, learning about the possible career paths, following up with her own friends, parent's friends, professors and others about what is involved with each career path and which would be best for her.  The young woman will be more prepared and most likely present herself better in an interview.  With enough energy, enthusiasm and hard work, she may also find a way around the new grad recruiter who is screening resumes and get herself an interview directly with the manager of the group she wants to join.

There is a great article on WebMD on "The Right Way to Praise Your Kids".  The article distinguishes between praising the effort rather than praising the outcome.

If my son makes a shot in soccer and scores a goal for his team it is easy to praise him on what a great shot it was and how it won the game for his team.  However, by telling him that you were particularly impressed with his hard work practicing and drilling before the game.  Reminding him of how much time he put into learning to curve the soccer ball, and how his playing every day was what lead up to that shot then I have now removed luck from the equation.  He made the shot because he "worked really really hard" to make it.

It is never too early to start preparing our children for the future. I can teach my son and daughter the truth of this simple equation, [work really, really hard = get what you want].  My wife and I can take each opportunity to point out when it has already proven true in their young lives (like the soccer example above).  With the proof and the confidence that knowing the equation works, maybe they really will be able to achieve anything.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Help your child find his motivation switch

There is a TV commercial aired in Japan for a well known cram school. It makes a joke about how a student needs to find his "Yaruki Switch" ["Yaruki" is probably best translated into meaning "Motivation" or "Will to do"]. One boy no matter where he looked, could not find it until he went to the cram school and the tutor located the switch in the middle of his back. Flicking it on, the boy ran screaming to get his homework done. A funny commercial and one with a good message. They even came out with a key chain version for sale.

My wife and I have the pleasure of raising an energetic, curious, active, boisterous son. This is actually true for our daughter too but much of the learning process we went through was for our son since he was born first. In order to find ways to understand and channel all this raw energy we read quite a bit about active kids. There were several approaches that psychologists suggested to help manage life at home and it was interesting to see a pattern emerge among the techniques. There is a common theme suggesting that the child imagine one's body to be something of a machine with various switches. Volume was a major one. The books recommended that we tell our son that he has a volume control knob (some suggested we make a physical one out of cardboard for younger kids). Once there was an image of some sort of control, our son could then make the adjustment, from outside voice to inside voice for example, by dialing down the knob.

So, what does this have to do with our kids getting good jobs after college? The "Yaruki Switch", when found, will help in many areas of your child's pre-career life. If we consider the job interview as the target (for the purposes of this blog) then an applicant with obvious energy, motivation and enthusiasm for the company will do better than one who seems just like all the other new grads. Prior to the interview, with the switch "on" your daughter will be diving into preparation for the meeting, learning what she can about the company and even trying to find out if there is anyone she or her parents know who works there. Even later in life, preparation for an interview is critical to getting the job offer.  Moving further back, our children flip the switch to "on" for exam time to get better grades and therefore get into better schools and have more opportunities to go to those interviews.  The schools matter.  Many company recruiters will eliminate half of the pile of resumes on their desk just by the name of the applicant's college.

My son and I had a long discussion about him finding his "Motivation Switch". Interestingly, the trigger to this discussion was not his schoolwork but rather a day at soccer practice. For whatever reason, he was not into the game. He played, but without much energy or enthusiasm. Afterwards, when we had some time to talk, I told him about the "Motivation Switch". He had seen the commercial on TV so knew what it was about. We talked about how he needed to find his switch and that he had to learn how to turn it on himself rather than relying on other people to get him moving. I tried to impart some of my parental wisdom about life, sharing something that took me more than 25 years to figure out.  If he (my son) was going to get out of bed for anything in life, he should be prepared to put 100% of his energy and effort into it.  He needs to find his switch and learn how to flip it "on" so that he will excel and, in a very real way, get the most out of life.

Granted, he was 8 and this discussion may have been forgotten by dinner time but one positive thing that came out of it was that my son and I now have a key phrase that can bring this idea back to mind.  If I notice him slacking a bit I can remind him to "turn on his switch" which is a bit more friendly than some of the alternative phrases I have heard and used.  The reminders are inevitable, nothing sets with young kids the first time.  Hopefully, he will get it though and find that if he can motivate himself, he can accomplish anything.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Make new year's resolutions a lesson in goal setting for your kids (and you!)

'Tis the season for setting goals for ourselves for the new year.  With the start of a new day, week and of course year,  it seems that we are all inspired to make a fresh start and do better.  Writing new year's resolutions with our kids can be a great chance to practice goal setting.

When your daughter sits down for her first job interview, the probability of hearing one of these questions is close to 100%: "What are your career goals?  What are your short term goals?  What are your long term goals?  Why did you apply to this company?"

Interviewers want to see that your child has given some thought to their future and that they have an idea about what they want to achieve.  Since most new grads have very little actual work experience the answers to these questions are expected to be vague and general but they will give the interviewer insights into how your son or daughter thinks about their future career.

Of course there are many bad answers to these questions:

"I want to be Head of Marketing in 2 years after you teach me everything you know."
"I don't know.  What do you think I should do?"
"I really want to be involved in the entertainment industry." (when applying for a job at an insurance company)

Goal setting will be valuable when applying to college as well.  A typical entrance interview will likely have similar questions: Why did you choose this major? Why did you choose this college? What are your career plans?  The more precise and thought out the answers the more mature your child will appear to the interviewer.

Traditionally, a good goal should be written, challenging, believable, specific, measurable and have a deadline.  I would add, especially for young kids, it should be something they are motivated to achieve. When my son was 7 years old, his resolution for the coming year was to learn to curve the soccer ball.  I thought this was a great goal for him.  Not only was it achievable, but it would bring additional rewards in the form of more scoring opportunities when he plays with his friends.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an interesting list of suggested resolutions for kids ages 5 to 12.
  • I will drink milk and water 3 times each day and limit soda and fruit drinks to once a day.
  • I will apply sunscreen before I go outdoors on bright sunny days.
  • I will try to find a sport or an activity that I liked and do it at least 3 times a week.
  • I will always wear a helmet when bicycling.
  • I will wear my seat belt every time I get in a car.
  • I will be nice to other kids.  I'll be friendly to kids who need friends.
  • I'll never give out personal information such as my name, address or telephone number on the Internet.
Obviously, being pediatricians, there is a focus on health.  The nice thing about these resolutions is that they are all things our kids should be doing anyway. In the context of setting resolutions with the family your son or daughter will have a chance to commit to them on their own rather than just being told to do them.  However, I think it is also good to let our children come up with their own goals and resolutions.  Most experts will advise that with young children you should keep the resolutions simple and easily achievable.  The main purpose is to help your child develop a habit of goal-setting and thinking about what they want in the future.

When my wife and I sat down to go through this exercise with my 9 year old son and 2 year old daughter, here are the resolutions they came up with:

9 year old:
"I want to be able to lift the soccer ball 15 times in a row"
"I want to complete Donkey Kong 2 on Wii."
"I want to control my temper when playing games with others."
"I want to get better at typing."

2 year old:
"I want to be a princess on Halloween." (again?)
"I want a pink flower."

Sit down with the whole family to work on resolutions.  This is an opportunity to talk about what we as parents want as well as all of us as a family.  I think there are benefits for our kids to hear that Mom and Dad have challenges to face in the coming year and that is it not just the children who need to do well in school or remember to clear their place at the table after dinner every night.

An additional benefit to preparing new year's resolutions as a family is that everyone now knows that Mom and Dad are going to try to exercise more and our kids may help us to stick to it.

It would be great to hear back from you about resolutions your own kids come up with.  Please let me know.