Saturday, December 28, 2019

My January Resolution (no, NOT my new year's resolution)

Back in September this year my brother's excessive health consciousness and ceaseless prating1 finally got to me and I committed to working out regularly for one month. I also added a no snacks after dinner rule and eliminated Netflix 😱. I laid out a chart in my handy dandy notebook and stuck to it, exercising on average 5 days each week. The no snack rule made me realize how often I grab something to eat in the evenings and without Netflix I actually finished a couple books I had been struggling to get through and went to bed earlier. I felt so good about it all that I decided to do it again in October. I switched up the exercises, putting a bit more emphasis on the vanity muscles of chest and biceps because... why not. Instead of snacks after dinner I went with no food at all as desert had been allowed the previous month and I also continued the Netflix fast. Another good month. I was able to stick to the 30 day target and found myself going for runs at 10pm just to make sure I could check the box for that day.

"Great, very proud of you! But, so what? What does this have to do with my kids getting a job?"

OK fine, perhaps I could have made my point with fewer lines up above but I had to explain the multi-month aspect of this discovery2 of mine. Now completing my 4th month (December) of this experiment, I am sold on the idea of Micro-Resolutions rather than committing to a longer and less realistic annual marathon goal.

A child's attention span can be estimated based on their age. With the length of time increasing as we get older. My extensive (Google) research produced the following chart:

  • 2 years old: four to six minutes
  • 4 years old: eight to 12 minutes
  • 6 years old: 12 to 18 minutes
  • 8 years old: 16 to 24 minutes
  • 10 years old: 20 to 30 minutes
  • 12 years old: 24 to 36 minutes
  • 14 years old: 28 to 42 minutes
  • 16 years old: 32 to 48 minutes (applied to adults too)

I added adults here at the bottom to the 16 year old row as the ranges I could find for adults went from 12 seconds (!) to 20 minutes as an average. While there is likely much debate that can be had here I am more interested in the differences and inferring a longer "goal" attention span from this chart. After some fiddling3 with the numbers and adjusting using 30 days as the average for 16 to adult we get the following chart:
  • 2 years old: 3 days
  • 4 years old: 7 days
  • 6 years old: 11 days
  • 8 years old: 15 days
  • 10 years old: 18 days
  • 12 years old: 22 days
  • 14 years old: 26 days
  • 16 years old: 30 days (applied to adults too)
Again, so what? Perhaps I should let Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell speak for me here. I went searching for support for my theory and she summed it up (with citations as well) in this article on Goal-Setting in Psychology Today.
Research has uncovered many key aspects of goal setting theory and its link to success (Kleingeld, et al, 2011). Setting goals is linked with self-confidence, motivation, and autonomy (Locke & Lathan, 2006). A 2015 study by psychologist Gail Matthews showed when people wrote down their goals, they were 33 percent more successful in achieving them than those who formulated outcomes in their heads.
We want our kids to be confident. Confident kids do better in interviews and are more willing to try new things and take on new challenges in school, work and life. Goal-setting (and goal-achieving) is an inescapable part of work-life. No matter what kind of career your child gets into they will be better off if they can set goals and work towards them. The idea of this article is to make it less overwhelming. If we as adults can't handle anything more than 30 days then let's set proper expectations with our kids. For a 4 year old, doing something everyday for a whole week may seem like forever!

To build confidence our kids need to challenge themselves over and over again and learn that 1) trying something new will not kill them, 2) if they put some effort into it they have a decent chance of succeeding and 3) if they fail the first time but keep trying they will almost certainly succeed! I suspect that goal-setting is a lot like this. It sounds like a nice idea but it is a bother and a risk to actually commit to something. To make it a habit, a positive feeling needs to be associated with it. If we start early with our kids, working on achievable targets we can help to build that confidence and a habit of goal-setting. Using the time chart above, try some different goals with your kids. Make it visible as well. A colorful 3 day chart on the refrigerator for your 2 year old will give them something to check off each day. Don't be afraid to set a reward for achievement.

As January 1st sneaks up on us and we all contemplate what impossible challenges we will set for ourselves (exercise more, eat less, get organized, spend less, etc) set yourself (and your kids) up for success instead of failure. Assuming you are an adult, give yourself a January Resolution and stick to it. Best of luck and Happy New Year!

1 I first wrote "prattering" here and my spellchecker kept telling me to change it to "pattering" which is what rain sounds like on a tin roof, not what my brother sounds like talking about nutrition and exercise. A little help from and I self-educated! The -ing form of prater is prating!

2 Perhaps I was not the first to discover this (see this article on CNN). But it was a discovery for me.

3 I first took the average for each row. Interestingly, the average jumps by 5 minutes for each age gap of 2 years. I then set 30 days as the long average for the oldest group and through trial and error came up with a number that when added to the previous row eventually comes to 30. In this case 3.75. But since that is an awkward number I then rounded everything down because I figured that in general, it is easier to do something for a shorter amount of time as opposed to a longer... 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

It's not fair! Are we just jealous? Why do we push our kids so hard?

Why do we push our kids so hard? We all have the same reasons that we share with others publicly. We want what is best for them. We are older and wiser and know best what they need to do to succeed. We want them to have the life skills necessary to succeed. We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we made. If we do not push, they will miss opportunities, or worse, be a total failure. We need to make them understand how important things like school and work are to their future. It sounds good, right? Noble and altruistic. We are sacrificing to help them to have a better life. We would rather be watching TV or playing golf than yelling at them about the C+ (or B+) they got in advanced algebra.

Who cares? Does the reason we do it really make a difference? The surface justifications do not lose any of their applicability just because the underlying motivation is selfish rather than altruistic. Our kids still don't know what the real world is like and they can certainly benefit from our wisdom (if they listen and act on it). So, can't we continue hiding behind the mask of honorable intentions and parental obligation so that we feel good about ourselves. So we can face our friends with the confidence that we are good parents and making all the expected sacrifices to raise good kids? What would change if we stopped resenting our kids, stopped being jealous of their youth and freedom, stopped looking at them and seeing ourselves 30 years ago?

I have a unique (not really) perspective. I am a parent with an 18 year old and am also a college professor with 18 year old students. I teach a class on career development so the topics I scream at my son about often overlap with discussions in the class. The motivation in class is to help the students prepare for their careers. I want to help them to understand the workings of the job market, including life lessons and unspoken rules (like showing respect to your boss never hurts). I have many more years of experience than they do and want to share it with them so they can build a life with fewer missteps and mistakes than I had. Do these motivations sound familiar? They should, these are the same rationalizations we claim are driving us when we scream at our kids for wasting their lives.

I have been teaching this class for over 10 years and have not once yelled at a student. Even cases where a student had taken out a phone or their laptop and was doing something unrelated to the class (wasting their life?) I merely asked them to pay attention and try to stay focused on our discussion while in the class.

Perhaps I should start screaming at my students. If we believe that it works on our kids then shouldn't I apply it to my teaching as well? 18 year olds don't listen unless you raise your voice and threaten them. Right? You would be hard-pressed to find any pedagogical text advising such an approach not to mention that my teaching career would likely come to a screaming halt.

What if the reasons are all a lie we tell ourselves and others? Let's consider 2 scenarios:

Scenario 1: You arrive home from work, tired and frustrated with your lot in life. Why can't your boss get off your back? why don't clients buy or pay when they say they will? Is that pasta you smell? You had pasta for lunch and don't want to eat it again! As you are walking, sweaty and miserable, down the hall to your bedroom you glance into your son's room as you pass. There he is in all his youthful glory, stretched out on his bed in shorts and a t-shirt looking cool and relaxed. He is holding a game controller in one hand while the other reaches for a potato chip from the bowl on his bed. With no preface, no "hello", you stop and blurt out, "Did you finish your homework?" He replies with a cheerful "yes" and continues munching on chips and playing his game. Smoldering, you scan the room for something else to pick on, "How about your laundry? Did you put that away?" you snap at him. This time he turns and actually looks at you when he says "yes".  Where did this kid get that attitude! You think angrily to yourself. “And did you pick up the cleaning like I asked you to do last night?” you sputter out at him. "Oh sorry, I forgot." is his guilty response. And with that missed task you launch into your speech, "I can't count on you for anything! You are wasting your life! When are you going to start acting like an adult!" With your parenting accomplished for the night, you stalk angrily to your bedroom leaving your son confused.

Scenario 2: You arrive home from work, feeling great! The client you have been after finally came through and doubled the expected order with your firm. Your boss thinks you are a genius and complimented you in front of the whole floor and your bonus this year is going to be better than ever. Wait, is that pasta you smell? You have been craving pasta all day. What luck!  As you are walking, exuberantly, down the hall to your bedroom you glance into your son's room as you pass. There he is in all his youthful glory, stretched out on his bed in shorts and a t-shirt looking cool and relaxed. He is holding a game controller in one hand while the other reaches for a potato chip from the bowl on his bed. Without thinking you turn in and pat him on the back asking him, “Hey, how was school? What are you playing there?” He responds with a mumbled “fine” and some words that make no sense to you (the name of the game?). You watch him play for a couple seconds thinking how awesome it is to be young and free then remind him to wash up for dinner before heading off to your own room to change.

What changed? He is still lying in bed "wasting his life" playing video games. He probably did not finish his homework and his laundry is likely sitting near him on the floor. Shouldn't you take this opportunity to guide him and teach him the importance of being productive ALL the time?

Obviously, the difference is us. Our approach to parenting and how we deliver the message seems to come more often from how we are feeling at that particular time. If we are in a good mood then we are forgiving and patient. More often, due to the stresses of everyday life, we are in a crappy and depressed mood and take it out on our kids. The more stressed we are with the heavy responsibilities of our own life, the more resentful we become with the “easy” life our kids have thanks to us. They should share some of our stress!

I am not going to get into a discussion on positive vs negative reinforcement now, that is a topic for another article. But I will ask you to be honest with yourself the next time you go off on your kids for being lazy or for some perceived act of immaturity. Is the passion with which you “educate” them coming from your love for them, or is it your envy and resentment for the freedom that you no longer have.