Ponderings on mindsets and intelligence

One of the things that the mindset literature is pretty clear on is that you’re not supposed to praise kids for innate characteristics, but for effort.  They have studies where they measure effort after a kid has been told, “You’re so smart” vs. “I can really see the effort you put in” or something like that.  Outcomes in the next experiment decline for the former but not for the latter.  Later studies suggest cheating goes up when innate intelligence is praised.

And so I’ve been keeping these ideas in mind when raising my kids.  With our first child we even went so far as to (frequently) request daycare and school teachers not to praise hir intelligence, but instead hir work ethic and interest.

And I thought that was the right thing to do until recently.  For the past couple of years, I’ve had an extremely successful student, a young woman, for two classes who has low confidence.  She’s easily one of the best students our program has had and lots of professors agree.  But she has low confidence.  She wanted to go to graduate school.  It took a lot of pushing to get her to apply to top programs that she should have gotten into based on her testscores, perfect GPA, and research experience.

She didn’t get in to any of them.  I’m guessing her essay wasn’t any good (she was too embarrassed to show it to professors before sending!) and most likely they wanted more work experience.  Plus she was on the low end for pure math courses– a few more probably would have helped.  I also wonder if she made the right choices of letter writers.  Maybe her research supervisor wasn’t as effusive about her as the professors in my department are.

Contrast that with one of her friends who is similarly situated except has an extremely high self-confidence (even if she has far less intellectual curiosity).  This friend didn’t apply to graduate school but did get into one of the most prestigious RA positions you can get as a feeder to top graduate schools.

I met the parents of both women at graduation and got an insight into the difference in confidence.  The parents of the second girl thanked me for being a great professor and for giving their daughter opportunities and said they were really excited about her job for next year.  They had normal proud parent reactions as we went back and forth praising their daughter (and me) and discussing her future.

The second set of parents (divorced, so I got this conversation twice) was also effusive in their praise for me, but not so much in their praise for their own daughter.  “She works hard,” “she’s always worked hard,” was a constant refrain from parents, step-parents, and siblings.  But there was something about the way they said it, as if they were excusing the praise rather than accepting it.  This was fixed in my mind when her mom’s response to my praise of her daughter was, “that’s sweet of you to say.”  “No, no it wasn’t,” I said. “I’m from the midwest.  We don’t just say things unless they’re true.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried about the world telling my kids that they’re smart.  They are smart.  That’s just a fact.  (And, to be honest, I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about being told I’m smart… I mean, yes, I’m smart, but so what.  Praise my accomplishments and things I’ve done, not my innate nature.)

Growing up my family took being smart for a given.  Of course I was smart.  I’m smart but so what.  Being smart isn’t enough (wasn’t enough), it’s what I do with it.  I wasn’t allowed to let my brain atrophy.  I had to keep exercising it.  My mom always told me I needed to keep pushing myself so that I could grow more dendrites.  Working hard would make me smarter.

Early on I really did believe that I just worked harder and had more opportunities than the other kids.  And that’s definitely true– my parents sacrificed a lot to give us opportunities and focused on our academic growth.  My mom picked up a lot of good child rearing techniques while working for Head Start back in the 70s.

But in the past few years since having children, I’ve come to suspect that there’s actually a bit of nature in the equation as well.   Maybe it’s not just in utero health and stimulation as an infant and so on (though these things are obviously important).  I sometimes wonder if gifted kids were just born with a bit more curiosity than non-gifted– and it’s the energy and curiosity that causes us to explore and grow dendrites… or maybe the lower sleep need is what allows more connections to be built, who knows.  Other kids can get as smart, but it’s more of an uphill climb.

Nature cannot be everything.  At university, I see my students get smarter, quicker, and more curious over the 2-4 years that I know them.  That blossoming is amazing.  Taking kids with cruddy high school experiences and fewer family advantages and teaching them to think and aspire and question is one of the most rewarding things that I do.  People really can get smarter.

I don’t want my DCs to feel limited.  I don’t want them to think they’re not capable of great things.  Maybe it is ok to say, Yes of course you’re smart, but what matters is what you do with it.  What matters is what you love, how hard you work, what interests you, what you care about, how much you focus, how many times you try.  And luck, of course, but we can control that about as much as we can our intelligence, which is to say, we can help create our own luck with measured risks just as we can increase our intelligence by focused study*.

I don’t think those short-term lab experiments by Carol Dweck et al. exclude this idea, the idea that you can combine praise for intelligence with emphasis on hard work.  So maybe I’ll go back to doing what seems right to me and not worry so much about how people praise my kids, so long as my kids know that intelligence isn’t everything.  Maybe praising solely effort isn’t the only way to create perseverance.  Maybe a little self-knowledge won’t hurt and will allow them to reach farther so they don’t keep themselves from taking opportunities.

Where do you fall on the praise spectrum?  We know all our readers are intelligent– do you think how you were praised as kids affects your perseverance and self-confidence as adults?  (And in what way?)

*standard disclaimer about extreme situations and not blaming people in poverty or with mental disabilities

Programming for kids

I think there’s a part one to kids programming from a couple of years ago, but I cannot find it anywhere in the archives, so maybe it was a discussion in the comments section of another blog.

Computer programming is fun and extremely important.  Even as a social scientist, having a modicum of programming knowledge makes life a ton easier.  Doing statistics requires data cleaning and statistical programming knowledge.  Just knowing what is possible — being able to think in a way that allows programming to make life easier– means big efficiency improvements.  And that’s just social scientists.  Engineers and scientists often have to deal with much more complex coding structures.

Added to that, having a good background in programming also means that your code is much easier to read, understand, and to pick up later and figure out what the heck it was you were doing.  I can usually tell when someone has programming background because they do useful things like comment their code or put carriage returns between sections or indent their code properly when doing loops.  I *wish* more of the people I work with had programming backgrounds!  (She says, after spending a day putting in comments, carriage returns, and tabs so as to be able to read a program before adapting it for this year’s dataset.)

Anyhow, our first foray into programming a couple of summers ago was to try out Scratch.  Scratch was a lot of fun, but it’s more of a toy that teaches some programming structures (ex. loops) than actually teaching programming technique.  I know there’s a lot of thought that playing is the right way to go with programming, and I’m not against playing at all, but there’s a *lot* to be said for getting good technique in while you play.

So now that DC1 is 8 and has spent a couple of summers playing with Scratch, we decided to try something more systematic in.  After some amazon searching, we settled on Python For Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming. We didn’t want to make this a chore like DC1’s homework books (which sometimes cause angst) and we didn’t want a time limit like piano practicing, so we just said ze has to do some each day, but as much or as little as ze wants.

So far it seems to be working out.  It takes the best parts of Logo (remember the turtle who made boxes?) and combines them with Python.  DC1 is pretty excited about it, and occasionally asks DH for help.  If you don’t have a professional programmer in your house, the same publisher also makes a Python book for parents, Teach Your Kids to Code.

Do you use programming or programming techniques for your work or hobbies?  Any suggestions for introducing people to coding?

Eczema is driving me crazy

and it’s not even mine!

DC2 had a good month or two with perfect skin, and then eczema hit again.  Ze is finally old enough to get allergy testing done, so we got it done, and ze came up clear.  Ze can still have food intolerances, but we don’t have to worry about anaphylactic shock.  The internet (including more reputable places like webmd) notes that age 3-4 is when food allergies stop leading to eczema.  So wheat should be fine now.

The allergist gave the same advice the pedi had given– bathe or shower once a day, lather with lotion or creme (preferable aquifor or aveeno) 3-4 times per day.  The problem is that when we do that, DC2 gets big flare-ups and ze hates hates hates the lotion and says it itches… which makes us suspect that some of these lotions are part of the problem not the solution.  Ze seems better with aquifor and hydrolatum.

So the day after the allergist, we gave hir wheat-based lasagna (to eat) and Aveeno (topically), and had hir take a bath in the tub.  Ze had a HUGE flare-up.  On the plus side, coconut no longer makes hir throw up and seems to have zero ill effects.

We switched out regular sunblock with Badger Zinc Oxide sunblock.  We got rid of the Aveeno and switched to different supposedly-eczema-friendly lotions and cremes.  We had several meals without wheat.  We switched from baths in the DCs’ bathtub to showers using my special shower filter (the water here gives me hives sometimes).  It didn’t clear up but seemed to be doing somewhat better.

Then it got worse and DC2 started tantruming when it was time to put on lotion.  Then it got worse than we’d ever seen it before, turning an angry red with bumps.  So we stopped the daily baths and didn’t put on lotion unless DC2 was willing and it stopped getting worse, though didn’t get much better.  We went to the doctor again and he said that even though it was now “moderate” rather than “mild” that we should continue doing what he told us to do and he was sure that the flare-ups that happened after we followed his instructions were entirely coincidental.  He also suggested oral steroids.  We called DH’s mom who is both a nurse and has had the experience of dealing with DH’s siblings’ eczema.  She suggested different lotions, a different anti-histimine, and fewer rather than more baths (an internet search suggests that more baths are what is en vogue but 5 years ago they were suggesting fewer, which suggests to me that they really don’t know).  She nixed the oral steroid and suggested a topical steroid.

After a lot of looking online and comparing and contrasting the ingredients of different lotions, we noticed that the ones that caused obvious flare-ups all have alcohol as an ingredient, and given that DC2 couldn’t handle wipes with alcohol and I used to have a topical allergy to rubbing alcohol, we thought maybe that might be contributing to the problem.  We noticed that the first two ingredients in one baby lotion formula were water and sunflower oil, and figured, maybe #2 has a point and we should just use oil (crazy online sites all recommend coconut oil or complicated mixtures of essential oils, but we’re not totally on board with coconut yet and both too lazy and too skeptical to combine oils that come with warning labels about overuse).  DC2 hasn’t complained at all about getting olive oil– no screams or tantrums– and it didn’t seem to be making anything worse, which, while not the same as making something better, is better than the alternative.  One application of the topical steroid before bed combined with benedryl completely cleared up one of DC2’s arms and made the other three limbs look markedly better.

#2 has topical allergies too, and eczema for the rest of my life.  There’s nothing like grad school for giving you a lifelong medical condition!  I had a conversation with #1 about my allergies (which is a boring conversation but maybe helpful if DC2 gets more topical allergy tests).  I have an ointment now that works, but big flares are only controlled with Prednisone.  Hopefully baby won’t need that.

My eczema is exacerbated by water sitting on my skin, which means that I can’t use most lotions (creams, gels, anything you leave on) because they have water in them.  You can always buy cheap olive oil and use that, but then people might try to lick you.

#1 notes that DC2 smells delicious after being coated in olive oil.

Isn’t this fun??!?!?

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Feelings on parenting advice

I was a bit surprised that parenting posts came up popular in our recent poll.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been ‘cuz I kind of like our parenting posts.  But that’s not true of all parenting advice out there in the world.  In fact, I tend to actively dislike a lot it.  And not just the, “they’re (not) doing it the way I do it” kind of dislike– something even more general than that.

I cogitated really hard on what I like and dislike.

I realized that I do like tips and tricks.  I love varied answers to parenting questions that people have (especially when some of the answers note that something worked for one kid but not another, especially those that try to make connections about why).  I think of them as potential tools in a parenting toolbox.  Some will work for just the right job, some jobs can be fixed with different tools, and some tools are just useless for any job.

Essentially, I like when people say, “here’s a bunch of things we’ve tried that worked for us, YMMV.”  I like seeing lots of variety because different things do work for different children– even having just two kids, I see that one size does not fit all.

I don’t like it when they say, “Here’s the one true way and if you don’t do it this way you’re doing it wrong and you’re a horrible mother (it’s always mother) and you’re scarring your children for life.”  I hate it when they say, “here’s a problem you didn’t even think of that you’re causing by not doing the (sometimes horrible) thing we recommend.”

So I don’t like most parenting books because they’re selling the One True Way with a side-order of mommy guilt.  But I do like being able to google a question and finding a forum that provides lots of recommendations from when someone else asked the same question about hir own kid.

Do you like parenting advice?  What kind?

 

Ask the grumpies: Fondest childhood memories influenced by parents

First Gen American asked:

On a related note…what are your fondest childhood memories that your parents influenced.

For some reason, my first thoughts are all negative memories.  (Getting sunburn while camping.  Though I do have a fond memory of my first soft-serve ice cream from the same camping trip.  Yum!)

Let’s see… my mom read to me every night until I was almost a teenager.  I went on road trips when I was little with my dad as we drove across country to move.  We’d stop places and see the sights.  My dad would make breakfast on weekends, like crepes or eggs.  My mom would take us to the library every weekend.

#2: I remember my parents reading a lot.  And I remember greeting my dad when he came home from work (when I was little) by running to meet him.  I dunno.  I mean, my family was pretty good but it’s also hard to come up with an answer to this question.

What are your favorite parent-influenced memories?

Ask the grumpies: Recommendations for post-maternity leave

Slightly Anonymous asks:

My department is writing a policy for what they do to support new parents post-parental leave.  I’m on the committee that is supposed to come up with this.  I think this is great:  if somebody misses a year or a semester with a new baby, then it makes sense that they might need some time or extra support to come back up to speed.  But what should our committee recommend?

I’m wondering if you or any of your readers have ideas?

I’m at a UK university, which means that academic staff at my university are either on short-term temporary contracts — think postdoc — or have permanent positions.  In most UK universities “lecturer” is the equivalent of “assistant professor with tenure.”  At my university there is a 1 year probationary period before your job is officially permanent, but passing probation is pretty much a formality.  There is still stress about being promoted, but much less than what comes with trying to get tenure in a US university.

Being in the US and not having been at coastal or ultra-prestigious schools, our own experience is pretty pathetic.  That whole “missing a year or a semester with a new baby” thing … not something we’re used to.  In my department we’re still trying to get something consistent in place that doesn’t involve begging other people in the department to cover your classes for a couple of weeks after the baby is born.

Off the top of my head, all I can think of is adding a year to the tenure clock for those without tenure, but that is mostly irrelevant in the UK context.  Surely someone out there has a better idea of what best practices are?  #2 has only seen terrible practices.  My poor poor colleagues.

Grumpy Nation, please weigh in with your suggestions!

A mother’s day rant

1.  If you’re a full-time daycare, don’t have “Muffins with Mom”.

2.  If you decide to have “Muffins with Mom” anyway, don’t put a sign-up sheet in the lobby where everyone can see which moms obviously don’t love their children enough to leave work to spent 30 min eating store-bought muffins with them at daycare.

3.  Also, the next day don’t ask the moms who weren’t there why they weren’t there and then tell them that they were the only mom who wasn’t there and little DC was so upset.  (Especially if the reason according to DC that ze was upset was because ze had to have grapes instead of muffins like all the other kids because ze’s allergic to wheat.  Or maybe especially if that’s not the reason.)

I wonder how many moms are going to show up in Dad’s place for Donuts with Dad, which I assume they’re also having.  Of course, little DC2 won’t have dad there either because he’s traveling for work that week.

I’m actually only slightly irritated, and mainly at the patriarchy.  And to be honest, I would have checked the no box even if I hadn’t had a P&T meeting scheduled a month and a half in advance at exactly that time.  I am willing to sacrifice DC a little bit so that other mothers can also feel free to check the “no” box if they need to or want to.  (And at the time I checked “No” there were two other “No”s, one with a written “I’m out of town” excuse.)  I suppose that makes me a terrible mother, but I don’t want hir to feel like this is a big deal, and based on conversations with hir the evening of the event, ze was indeed upset by the lack of muffin and not at all by the lack of mommy.  (And yes, a “better” set of parents would have brought gluten-free muffins, but DC2 has gf cookies provided specifically for these kinds of events, and I didn’t really realize that it was Thursday until I got to daycare and saw the ladies setting up for the party, because the end of the semester is busy.)

I have the solace that deep down I believe that these little upsets truly are character building and learning to weather having to eat grapes when the other kids have muffins so as to avoid getting a rash is just one of those things that makes a person stronger.  Obviously we shouldn’t try to create character building incidents because that’s sadistic, but it’s not such a big deal when they happen.  Especially when grapes are actually better than grocery store muffins.

or with music

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