Too Much of a Good Thing


Blog_TooMuchGoodThingRaising children of character in an indulgent age can be difficult so Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing, offers parents guidance not only on how to handle material indulgence but emotional as well.  I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I wrote the article “Your Child’s Happiness: What Price, Privilege?” for RFM’s November 2011 issue, as the title kept coming up in my research.  I was intrigued by Kindlon’s claims that good intentions cause parents to negotiate and overprotect their children, giving them a sense of entitlement and a lack of limits.  So in the spirit of giving my children the “love” they need this February, I decided to learn more about giving them less and expecting more.

“We indulge our children at least partially because we can afford to,” Kindlon explains.  “We are indulgent.  And our children also feel indulged: adrift in a world where the lines between childhood and adulthood are blurred.”  When Kindlon surveyed parents, he found that the majority – whether millionaire or middle-class – felt they were less strict than their parents.  “We want to talk things out with our kids, reason with them rather than impose authoritarian punishments such as taking away privileges; we want open communication, not dictatorial rule.”

Kindlon explains we don’t need to compromise our close bond with our child in order to be able to impose the boundaries kids need.  But we do need to stop doing so much for them so we don’t rob them of the chance to learn how to succeed on their own.  “When a child has a reasonable chance to accomplish something, they should be encouraged because the skills they develop come to have their own incentive value,” Kindlon argues.

We’ve all heard it before – money can’t buy happiness.  Kindlon backs up the adage with proof, “As a nation, we are twice as rich as we were in 1957.  We own twice as many cards per person and eat out twice as often…Yet despite increased wealth and comfort, the rates of suicide, depression, and divorce are all up.”  So he devotes the second half of his book to “The Seven Syndromes of Indulgence.”

Using the concept of the “Seven Deadly Sins,” Kindlon begins by addressing self-centeredness, which is based on the first sin, pride.  Here’s the problem we’re having.  “We want them to be confident, but no so confident that they ignore risk and danger.  We want them to be able to face and overcome challenges and have a sense of self-efficacy…We don’t, however, want them to be so self-centered that they are painfully self-conscious, anxious, and ashamed.”

The other part of the problem is that it’s easy for kids today to think of themselves as special because, Kindlon explains, “in many ways they are – they have special talents, abilities, and privileges.”  Except when parents are so in love with their children that they can’t stand to see them upset so they give them whatever they want, Kindlon argues, “We end up making them feel that they’re at the center of all universes, not just our families.”  This is how smart kids, born with all of the advantages, end up having no sense of self and feeling unable to measure up, Kindlon insists.

While, Kindlon admits, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that can be offered up here, if we maintain a critical eye of ourselves as parents it’ll be easier to us to help our kids grow to understand their responsibility towards others.  Kindlon shares many anecdotes, in particular a great story about resisting the temptation to drive two hours home to get his daughter’s forgotten sneakers or buy a new pair before dropping her off at camp, that parents will really be able to relate to.  In the meantime, encouraging chores, team sports, and community service are all ways to connect children to the world around them.

So if you’re like Kindlon and feel you’re avoiding the mistakes your parents made but making new ones, then indulge yourself and check out Too Much of a Good Thing.  I’ll blog about the rest of “The Seven ‘Deadly’ Syndromes” later this month so stay tuned for information on parenting in this age of indulgence.


If you want help putting chores into practice at your house, read one of these Parenting by the Book posts:

A Penny Saved by Neale S. Godfrey

The Blessing of a B Minus – Homework, Chores, and Jobs by Wendy Mogel

You’re Not the Boss of Me by Betsy Brown Braun




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Read my other blog Befriending Forty.


Einstein Never Used Flashcards – Reflect, Resist, and Re-center


1401_BLOG_Einstein“The next time you read a sensational headline in a parenting magazine or hear about the latest research on child development at a meeting or on a talk show, stop yourself from frantically grabbing a pencil and scribbling notes about what you need to do differently, go out and buy, or work into your busy schedule,” the authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards suggest.  Instead, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff recommend you take a moment to reflect, resist, and re-center because “playful environments and spontaneous learning opportunities hold the keys for a happy, emotionally healthy, and intelligent child – and for a fulfilled parent.”

Why is it important to move from memorizing to learning in context?  It boils down to the fact that we truly learn something new when we experience it.  It was psychiatrist, William Glasser, who first reported this brain-based research: “We learn 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss, 80% of what we experience, and 95% of what we teach others.”  Einstein Never Used Flashcards essentially illustrates how flash cards are useless tools for toddlers and preschoolers who cannot connect the information to anything meaningful in their world.  Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff share examples of toddler “geniuses,” who have simply memorized words not actually learned to read, as their proud parents boast, for when presented with new words they are unable to pronounce them as real readers would.  The authors of Einstein Never Used Flashcards set out to show parents that their “job” is to make learning fun and engaging so when students encounter formal instruction at school they’ll be ready for the information.

According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, “The key to intelligence is how you learn, how you adapt knowledge, and how you process what is going on around you.  Yet there is tremendous pressure today to look more at what children know rather than at how they know and learn it.”  Why is this problematic?  Because “being able to do a limited task is not the same thing as being able to use your knowledge intellectually,” Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff argue.  Furthermore, “Overemphasizing the development of what’s between the ears can wind up deemphasizing the development of what needs to be in the heart in order to foster happy, confident children.”  Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff also make a point of noting that in the day-to-day world no intelligence is more important than interpersonal, which is the ability to get along with others.

Therefore, parents need to let go of the myth that they are all-powerful in shaping their children’s intelligence and concentrate instead on joining in the fun.  According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, “Play promotes development – and in a number of domains.  For instance, play promotes problem solving and creativity.  It also helps to build better attention spans and encourages social development.”  When parents follow their children’s lead, it can increase the play’s impact, as they’ll be benefitting from hearing your creative ideas, and it can give children a sense of power.

But play is only effective if parents resist the temptation to control it.  Kids need to independently navigate the choices play offers them for it to provide the most essential intellectual and social advantages, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff explain.  So while the authors recognize that you might not always feel like you’re in control, you need to recognize that you are and your children need their turn.  Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff maintain play gives children not only this opportunity but also the break they need “- to assimilate things they’ve learned, to master new skills, to work through scary emotional experiences, and just to have fun.”  The authors realize that organized activities have their place in children’s lives, but they urge parents not to mistake them for play.  “It is play, plain and simple, that affords many of the most essential intellectual and social advantages for children.”

With the myth that free play is a waste of time becoming popular in recent decades, play is more important than ever.  According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, “In the 21st century, creative problem solvers, independent thinkers, and people with expert social acumen will inevitably surpass those who have simply learned to be efficient at getting the right answers.”  Thanks to modern technology, facts are available at our fingertips, the authors remind us.  “Although the new movement in education called high-stakes testing functions as if right answers were what matters, the truly creative – the individuals who make the most significant contributions – go beyond finding answers to already formulated problems.”

So if knowing that Albert Einstein never used flash cards isn’t enough to convince you to just play with your kids, then pick up this great read to find out more about how children really learn.  It’ll help you create an environment that fosters the kind of love of learning you really want.




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Einstein Never Used Flashcards


1401_BLOG_EinsteinI have been wanting to read Einstein Never Used Flashcards by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff for some time now.  The baby-educating industry has become a huge market yet it contradicts everything I’ve learned over the course of my twenty-one years in education.  Eager to find out more about the science of why parents should resist achievement in favor of fostering a love for learning, I began reading.

Although Einstein Never Used Flashcards is geared towards parents with young children, in our SOLs-obsessed state, the authors’ philosophy still applies to parents with older children, like me.  Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff report, according to extensive research by the National Research Council of Institute of Medicine, “The key predictors of healthy intellectual and emotional development are ‘responsive, nurturing relationships with parents and caregivers’.”  Therefore, the authors claim, the best way to grow smart kids is to simply take the time to enjoy them.

According to the research, engaging in purposeful, everyday activities is the best way to awaken your child’s intellect, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff insist.  Yet the authors report one survey shows that “65% of parents believe that flash cards are “very effective” in helping 2-year-olds develop their intellectual capacity.”  Why is there a disconnect between the scientific research and parental opinion?  Well, the authors explain the answer is two-fold.  First, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff claim, “Much of what the media reports about research on child development contains only a grain of scientific truth.” Second, the baby-educating toy industry, which the authors claim is now a billion dollar business, has managed to convince parents that parental architects can influence their children’s brains.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff argue that “the prevailing message is that it’s no longer sufficient for infants and toddlers to learn independently.”  But in their chapter “Brainchild: How Children are Wired to Learn,” the authors explain why millions of years of evolution cannot be altered by parents in one generation.  The reality is that “If children are growing up in normal, everyday environments filled with objects and buildings, with people who love then and talk to them, their brains will grow all by themselves.  Parents are not the sculptors of their children’s brains, nor do they have the responsibility for deciding which particular sorts of experiences to provide to make synaptic connections happen within a critical period of time,” according to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff.

Part of the reason, they conclude, many good parents have fallen victim to a bad myth is because we live in a roadrunner society.  According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, “Adults hear the message that getting more done faster is better and pass the pace right on down to their kids.”  Surprisingly, “time-use studies show that the amount of time mothers spend with each child has barely changed over the last 50 years.  What has changed is what parents typically do with their children during that time.  Increasingly, it is ferrying them from one ‘enriching’ organized activity to another,” explain Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff.

These hectic schedules, argue the authors, gave rise to the notion of ‘quality time.’  However, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff argue, “By making children dependent on others to schedule and entertain them, we deprive them of the pleasures of creating their own games and the sense of mastery and independence they will need to enjoy running their own lives.”  Furthermore, the authors believe, parents rob themselves of one of the greatest joys in life – parenting.

So if you’re looking for some insights into why you should resist the temptation to create “young geniuses,” then read Einstein Never Used Flashcards. It won’t take long for Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff to convince you that doing so is the best way to equip you to raise happy, healthy, and intelligent children.  Chapters include not only easy to understand scientific explanations but also “teachable moments” and sections where you can “discover hidden skills” in your children.  Ultimately, Einstein Never Used Flashcards offers up an ideal New Year’s resolution for all those interested: reflect, resist, and re-center.  This new parenting mantra will help you create the nurturing home life you need to raise children who love to learn.



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Read my other blog Befriending Forty.

Teaching Your Kids to Be Good People – A Culture of Caring


“Obviously not all teachers are parents but all parents are teachers…When we teach kids to be good people we help the world becomes a safer, saner, more equitable place for all of us,” writes Annie Fox, author of Teaching Kids to be Good People by Annie Fox.  Since the holiday season seems like the perfect time for parents to learn more about raising children who have the courage to do the right thing, Fox’s step-by-step guide to progressive parenting solutions for the 21st century was a great choice for Parenting by the Book this December.

What I like so much about this book is how Fox addresses issues we can all relate to.  For example, “Chapter Four: How About Letting It Go Already?” focuses on releasing shame, regret, and contempt.  Fox writes, “The thing about mistakes is that most of us don’t deal with them in healthy ways – at least, not consistently…Teaching our kids to be good people includes helping them forgive mistakes and focus on what is good in them and others.”  Since this is no easy task, Fox offers up personal anecdotes to illustrate her point.  When she recalls her compulsive need to relive her feelings of hurt, betrayal, and resentment, I must admit I could relate when she wrote, “Was I temporarily insane?” as almost all problems seem trivial once time provides us clarity.

As with all the issues raised in the book, Fox’s provides parents direction, in this case by listing questions to prevent pity parties.  It’s a great resource for parents because, as Fox explains, “teaching our kids to move past  bad choices and old hurts is wise teaching, but we can’t effectively teach it until we’ve mastered it ourselves.”  One of the great teachable moments Fox offers is to ask your child to imagine wearing a backpack filled with hurt (or guilt) s/he feels about what happened.  She suggests you tell your child, “You can carry that weight as long as you want, or you can choose to let some of it go.”

It’s thoughtful ‘Real World Assignments’ like this that you’ll find in every chapter.  Another one of my favorites along the lines of ‘forgive and forget’ is giving people second chances.  Fox writes, “Not even the Olympic Gold Medalists in parenting get it right every time, so why should we expect to be perfect?  We have messed up before and we’ll do it again.  When it happens and we apologize to our children, we teach them about respect, compassion, and forgiveness.”  This assignment includes an opportunity to Listen In, if you have an ebook, as it links you to a podcast that features Fox talking to Joan Ryan, author of The Water Giver: The Story of a Mother, a Son, and Their Second Chance.  Interactive moments such as these really help Fox’s points to resonate with readers.

While my preteen hasn’t gotten too far into the “You Embarrass Me” phase I know it’s coming so I found this part of Teaching Kids to be Good People to be particularly helpful.  As Fox points out, “Young children are totally dependent on our goodwill, so they seek our approval.  We are their heroes and they shower us with affection.  Then they grow into teenagers and are always ready to criticize us.  That’s part of how they establish an independent identity.  It may be uncomfortable for use, but it is a normal, healthy process for them.”  So if your teen would rather be home alone than out in public with you, try not to take it personally.  If you continue to show your child love and respect, Fox insists that as your child matures, s/he will become less concerned about what others think and more likely to spend time with you.

Ultimately, if you’re trying to teach your child to be a good person then Fox claims you need to accept that being a good person is just as nuanced as being a good parent.  Fox believes, “By thoughtfully expressing our perspective, observing, asking questions, listening, understanding, and acting with compassion, we are more likely to be of real service to others.”  So while our best intentions may sometimes miss their mark, that’s no reason for either you or your child to end up on Santa’s Naughty List.  Teaching your children to open their hearts to others might have its missteps, but it is the first step to changing a culture of cruelty to one of caring.  And that’s what the holiday season is all about.



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Teaching Kids to Be Good People


I decided to blog about Teaching Kids to be Good People by Annie Fox because the holiday season seems like the perfect time for parents to learn more about raising children who have the courage to do the right thing.  In her personal, step-by-step guide, Fox offers up progressive parenting solutions for the 21st century.  After all, she writes, “Obviously not all teachers are parents but all parents are teachers…When we teach kids to be good people we help the world becomes a safer, saner, more equitable place for all of us.”

With ‘What would you teach here?’ moments in every chapter, readers can reflect on how they’d react and then compare their reactions with Fox’s reply.  The ebook I’m reading is this incredible interactive experience for parents interested in teaching their children to be good people both on and offline.  Hyperlinks not only lead parents to websites but also podcasts from her series, “Family Confidential.”  And every chapter contains ‘Real World Assignments,’ offering parents the opportunity to listen in, provoke conversations that count, and teach.

“Because most parents don’t teach kids about expressing emotional needs, teens rarely say: I need a hug. I need to share this exciting news.  I need you to listen.  I need you to tell me the truth.  I need help,” claims Fox.  She explains, “Most of us are much quicker to stand up for others than for ourselves.  On some level we must believe we don’t deserve to get our emotional needs met.”  This is problematic when raising children, because as Fox argues, an unwillingness to ask for help often accompanies a bad habit of pretending things are fine when they are not.  While Fox recognizes that self-reliance is essential, she believes, “When we let people know how we feel and allow them to love us and help us, we honor our humanity.”  Therefore, it’s important for parents to ask, ‘How can I help?’ when they see their child is upset.

What I found particularly interesting about Fox’s philosophy is her think of the bigger picture directive.  “If you want your child to become a good person whose actions demonstrate a high level of personal integrity, if you want her to help promote more friendship, peace, and justice in the world,” she believes, “you need a plan.”  It’s this call for thoughtful parenting that really appeals to me.  Fox insists character development is an ongoing process; therefore, she argues parents should “talk about ethical behavior where you see it and where you don’t.”  While she realizes this is no easy task, Fox believes that if parents model it in their own lives, they can help their children learn from their mistakes.  One of my favorite ‘Real World Assignments’ for promoting this kind of mindfulness is the following: “If a hidden video camera recorded your family’s typical interactions, what would it capture?”

When in doubt, Teaching Kids to be Good People contains a variety of quizzes to assist you with starting conversations that count.  Whether it’s the initial Family Climate Questionnaire or one questioning your assumptions about self-reliance, you’re bound to find an assortment of empowerment tools in this book.  After all, as Fox establishes, “Parenting and teaching are both highly nuanced arts;” therefore, it is only through thoughtfulness that we can really give our children what they need this holiday season – compassion.




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It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent – Meeting Everyone’s Needs


Life never goes as planned, and Janis Clark Johnston, author of  It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent, claims, since our brains are like storage bins, everything that’s ever happened to us is waiting there for a chance to come out.  She believes, “We struggle in looking at a child’s needs one interaction at a time because we have not examined enough of our own needs one interaction at a time.”  Therefore, in her book, Johnston illustrates how children end up raising parents by helping them connect to an earlier time in their lives when they felt distress.

With lives as busy as they are nowadays, Johnston argues it’s important to address energy needs.  She argues, “We must model for our children a sense of how to positively engineer our own energy cycles, because we pass on to our children both verbal and nonverbal energy inheritance.”  The reality is we all have our moods, but if we fail to deal with them, then they might confuse our children, leaving them to incorrectly assume it’s the result of something on their part.

Whether it’s getting enough sleep, getting something to eat, or getting some exercise, parents often neglect their energy needs for the “good” of the family.  Johnston believes parents need to reevaluate the choices they are making in order to determine how best to replenish personal energy needs.  According to Johnston, fast food is a big issue, “American’s spend more of their income on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars.  In fact, more money goes into the coffers of fast-food restaurants than into the combined purchases of movie tickets, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music.”

Johnston suggests parents start reenergizing by mapping their energy – describing the energy levels of their caretakers, assessing their energy levels as a child, and determining the environmental factors interfering with their energy today.  Once parents have a handle of what their issues are, they can begin to restructure their lives so they have more energy.  Since juggling every family member’s needs takes planning, Johnston suggests not only scheduling time to get chores done but also bond with each of your children individually.

I’ve been booking downtime, kid-time, and me-time ever since I blogged about The Balanced Mom by Bria Simpson.  It’s the only reason I’m able to juggle working full-time, graduate school, and writing for Richmond Family with two kids.  But Johnston’s chapter on creativity needs struck a chord with me, since I started a ceramics class this month.  I know what you’re thinking, Why would I add that to my plate?  It was a birthday present.  My husband surprised me after he overheard me telling my daughter I was jealous that she learned how to create pottery on a wheel, as that was something I’d always wanted to do.  I went because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and ended up feeling more energized than I had in a long time.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” said the playwright George Bernard Shaw.  Johnston includes this quote in her convincing chapter on the need more creativity.  After having blogged about Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson, I’d already been sold on the idea that kids need more creativity in their lives, but Johnston showed me parents do, too.  And while one could make the case that all the writing I do is a form of creativity, it’s not the same as covering my hands with clay just for fun.  Ultimately, Johnston helped me see that I need to be more creative with my parenting problem solving so that as my children age they won’t tune me out because they’ve already heard what I have to say.

What makes It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent so powerful is how effectively she establishes that “we can feel five, or ten, or fifteen all over again when our child reaches five, ten, or fifteen years of age and their experience draws forth one of our stories and its meaning.”  Whether its energy, creativity, discipline, bonding, or ability needs not being met, Johnston give parents the information they need to understand what they’re going through and the tips they need to evolve right along with their children.



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Read my other blog Befriending Forty.

It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent


1311_BLOG_It-Takes-A-ChildWhile it is the parent’s job to show her child love and teach her child values, Janis Clark Johnston maintains, “When our child experiences a crisis, we can lose our bearings. Our own internal crises jiggle loose. Just when our child needs us, we are needy ourselves.”  It’s this fascinating concept that’s at the center of Johnston’s book, It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent.  The premise is that “our child ends up guiding us by connecting us to an earlier time in our life when we encountered distress.”

One of my favorite parts of Johnston’s book is how she uses the phrase parent in training.  I think it captures the phenomenon perfectly of how just when I seem to figure out a system that works for my family someone goes and grows up, changing the whole dynamic again and forcing me back to the drawing board.  Since most of us lack training in parenting, Johnston explains we learn from our parents and peers as well as through trial and error.  But many of us forget, we’re also learning from the children we’re charged with raising.

I found it interesting when Johnston noted how “we always want our child to listen to us, but frequently we lack the effort to listen well to our child.”  If we are to truly listen to our children, then Johnston claims we must engage in the moment so we can embrace our child’s perspective.  Otherwise, listening becomes as perfunctory act when we yes our children while we distractedly think of all the things we have to do.

Part of the reason It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent appealed to me so much is because storytelling is at its heart.  “Traveling story to story, the parenting trip provides parallel opportunities for adult and child growth,” Johnston says.  In fact, she argues that some of the best lessons we learn in life involve children.  Ultimately, Johnston explains, by addressing your own unresolved issues, you will develop your own parenting philosophy, which will meet both your needs and your child’s.

According to Johnston, parents and children share five basic needs: energy, discipline, creativity, belonging, and ability.  However, she explains, “While we all have the same needs, we travel different paths to meet our needs.”  Essentially, It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent argues the need to consciously map out your personality so that you can gain a greater awareness of your growing pains.  This way you’ll have fewer days when you don’t recognize yourself and more moments happily engaged with your child.

The difficulty lies in the fact that your needs are constantly interacting with those of your child.  “Some of our days reflect in-sync family escalator movement through needs,” maintains Johnston; whereas “on other days we collide while attempting to meet needs, facing breakdown and heartache.”  What it boils down to is that if we are incapable of modeling how to meet our own needs, how will our children ever learn?

Let’s face it.  We’re just as inconsistent as our child.  The sooner we accept this “chameleon” element to our personalities the easier it will be for us to move forward in our parenting.  One of the best parts of It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent is how it offers tips for the child and then a tip for the parent so that each can ultimately grow up. But Johnston never loses sight of the fact that no matter how old we get, “we can feel five, or ten, or fifteen all over again when our child reaches five, ten, or fifteen years of age and their experience draws forth one of our stories and its meaning.”  It’s this mindset that allows us to not only steer our children along their journey, but embrace ours as well.




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Top Dog: Feeding the Competitive Fire


Blog_TopDog“We all make mistakes, but we need to learn from them and move on,” argue Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  “You can own a mistake, or the mistake will own you,” they explain in their latest title, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.  While the book doesn’t offer parents specific tips for helping their children deal with competition, it certainly provides a persuasive argument against the participation-trophies-for-everyone movement that’s become so popular.

One of the most memorable chapters is on the difference between winning and playing-not-to-lose.    You know what they mean – the idea that a person is so focused on preventing failure that they are unable to play to win.  According to Bronson and Merryman, this is problematic because “new ideas can’t come from a playing-not-to-lose mindset, where the inhibition system is hyperactive.  Creativity requires disinhibition: it requires turning off the internal censors in order to allow brainstorming and idea generation.”

A perfect example of how this playing-not-to-lose mindset relates to a school setting occurred at the University of Texas.  Top Dog explains students were given a series of GRE problems at the beginning and end of the semester.  The difference being that initially students gained points for every correct answer, whereas in the end, they lost points for every wrong answer.  While you wouldn’t think this would make a big difference, it did.  Bronson and Merryman describe how the students were more focused on avoiding mistakes than gaining new knowledge.  Ultimately, the authors argue, “When [the students] first arrived on campus as freshman, they wanted to get an education that would last a lifetime.  But by the end of the semester, they were fixated on learning just what they would need to get through the final exam.”

My other favorite chapter was about how competition manifests itself in the arts.  Bronson and Merryman encourage readers to think of a room full of young artist-apprentices all vying for the master’s approval.  According to Top Dog, “Da Vinci believed artists thrived under the pressure of such a competitive environment.”  Apparently, the artists who recommended Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel did so because they believed his failure would result in his rival, Raphael, painting it.  Luckily, Michelangelo rose to the occasion.

According to Bronson and Merryman, if we want our children to succeed in life, the ultimate competitive environment, then we need to cultivate agency.  The authors explain it as “the capacity to act independently, to make one’s own free choices, and to make decisions quickly.”  The idea being that it’s not enough to have creative ideas; rather people need to have the courage to risk rejection if they are ever going to succeed.

When Bronson and Merryman describe the childhoods of highly creative adults, it does not involve a significant amount of art training as children.  “What they had instead were childhoods where they learned to trust their own judgment without anyone’s input.  They grew up learning to be comfortable with conflict, contradiction, and opposition,” argue Bronson and Merryman.

Parents might also enjoy the chapters on “The ‘Roid Rage of Chess” and “The Hierarchy of Teams,” as both offered some fascinating insights into how our mindset towards our interactions with others impacts our success.  What it comes down to, Top Dog is the perfect antidote for parents, like me, who are sick and tired of their kids getting ribbons just for showing up.  I’m ok with the short-term implications of my child’s hurt feelings if it means success in the long-term.  For as Bronson and Merryman so artfully convey, “Competitive fire will flourish when long-term goals are high, and when it’s accepted that risks and mistakes go hand-in-hand, and we are free to let ambition reign.”




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Top Dog – The Science of Winning and Losing


Blog_TopDogWhen I learned that Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman had written a second book together I couldn’t wait to read it.  These authors penned one of my favorite parenting books to date – Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children.  While their latest title – Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing – isn’t a parenting book per se, I still wanted to blog about it, as competition, perhaps now more than ever, is a hot topic when it comes to kids.

And in some respects Top Dog was written in response to another Parenting by the Book title – Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.  Although I didn’t feature this title in the recent September issue, it is another one of my favorites.  I found Colvin’s argument so compelling I actually incorporated his book into one of the English courses I teach at a local community college.  However, in Top Dog, Bronson and Merryman refute Colvin’s claim that deliberate practice is the key to success.  They argue, “In addition to the deliberate practice, success also depends on how well people compete.”

Bronson and Merryman begin their case by explaining the difference between adaptive and maladaptive competitiveness.  They explain, “Adaptive competitiveness is characterized by perseverance and determination to rise to the challenge, but it’s bounded by an abiding respect for the rules.”  What’s so wonderful about people who excel in adaptive competitiveness is that they “don’t have to be the best at everything – they only strive to be the best in the domain they train for.”  As a result, these types of people have what Bronson and Merryman consider healthy competitiveness, marked by “constant striving for excellence but not desperate concerns for rank.”

Maladaptive competitiveness, on the other hand, is “characterized by psychological insecurity and displaced urges.  It’s the person who can’t accept that losing is part of competing; it’s the person that competes when others around him are not competing.”  It’s the person that wins at all costs, regardless of whether he or she is breaking the rules.  These people don’t understand that cooperation is key to competition, and as a result, competition has gotten a bad rap.

Contrary to popular belief, Bronson and Merryman claim, “Competition doesn’t kill creativity: it facilitates creative output by supplying motivational drive.”  Granted, they acknowledge that “what it takes to compete is not the same as what it takes to maintain well-being and to live a happy, contented life.”  Still, Top Dog, through powerful anecdotes and compelling research, convincingly establishes why one would want to excel at adaptive competitiveness.

According to Bronson and Merryman, “The real benefit of competition is not winning – it is improved performance.”  Competition forces people to dig a little deeper, try a little harder, and redefine their definition of best effort.  Therefore, in Part Two: Formation, Bronson and Merryman look at how the worrier can ultimately beat the warrior.

Bronson and Merryman understand some people, whom they dub warriors, need stress to function at their best.  This concept is probably nothing new to you, but Top Dog explains the science behind it.  As a college English instructor, I often hear students say that they procrastinate because they work better under pressure.  And Bronson and Merryman recognize “Some might argue that real life is full of stress, and if high-stakes tests weed out children who can’t handle the stress of performance, maybe the tests are accurately predicting who will do well in real life.”

But according to Top Dog, worriers, who typically have better memories, attention, and higher verbal IQs, actually fair better in the long run than warriors because they perform better daily and can acclimate to stressful environments over time.  Therefore, there’s no need to panic if your child gets anxious during timed tests or flustered in the face of deadlines.  They are not destined to fail.  In fact, if you can help them realize that they are in control of how much pressure they put on themselves, they might just wear the warrior down enough to win the war.

So tune in later this month to find out more about how Bronson and Merryman upend much of the conventional wisdom on competition and get tips on how to put the odds in your child’s favor.




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Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore: Modern Family Talk


1309_BLOG_Not-A-Kid-AnymorePart Two of Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore by Sue Sanders resonated with me much more than Part One had.  In this book, which some label a parenting memoir, Sue Sanders started by tackling what she calls expected but still surprising conversations, like “Mom, Have You Ever Smoked Marijuana?”  She shared not only her experiences navigating adolescence but also her daughter’s, attempting to soothe parents’ fears by honestly conveying what she learned the hard way.  However, I found the conversations, which compromise the second half of the book, to be most valuable.  Let’s face it.  Family talk isn’t what it used to be.

Saunders begins her explorations of Modern Family Talk with “Aren’t Family Values a Good Thing?”  As she painted a picture of “walking a tightrope of small talk” at extended family dinners, I could relate.  Having grown up with a Republican father and Democrat mother, I know firsthand how tense things can get when family members try to convince each other of their politics.  While my husband and I are both liberal in our beliefs, we have surrounded ourselves with people from all walks of life, and therefore all political views, so I enjoyed reading how Saunders prevents social gatherings from drifting off into the political abyss.

“Can I Get American Eagle Jeans?” was another great chapter on materialism, as I’m always struggling with how best to teach my daughters the difference between needs and wants.  Saunders writes, “For parents trying to avoid the pitfalls of unchecked materialism, it can sometimes feel as if they’re shoving a finger in a dam to keep all the “wants” pressing on the other side from pouring through.  But no matter how many fingers and toes are jammed in the crack, some keep seeping in.”  That’s why Saunders allowed her daughter to financially contribute when it came to the purchasing of her team swim suit, claiming “She now has more of a personal stake in the suit and the team than if they were just given to her.”  Having just shelled out an exorbitant amount of money for my daughter’s gymnastics team uniform, I’m filing this idea away for the next “must-have” my older daughter comes to me with.

Perhaps, my most inevitable question to come is “Do You Drink Wine Every Night?”  Like Saunders, I don’t really have to think to answer that one. (Or maybe, my kids don’t even need to ask.)  “Pretty much. But I rarely have more than one glass a night,” she explains.  I credit my love of red wine to my Italian heritage and think of “my people” back in Italy enjoying wine at meals the way Americans do sodas.  Granted, when my daughter learns in school that alcohol is a drug, I’ll have some explaining to do (and not that scientists believe a glass of red wine a day is good for your heart).  But for the most part I believe, as Saunders does, that “I’m setting a good example, showing how an adult drinks wine responsibly.”  In doing so, Saunders argues, she’s paving the way for future conversations about the dangers of alcohol when her daughter (inevitably) begins experimenting.

Again, if you have a child that asks a lot of questions that make you uncomfortable, then check out this book, as it gives some good ideas for how you might deal with them.  While Saunders doesn’t offer any specific ways on how to initiate these awkward conversations, she does a great job of demonstrating how you can keep the lines of communication open when your child insists, “Mom, I’m not a kid anymore!”



Follow @WinterhalterV on Twitter for updates on blog posts or like Parenting by the Book on Facebook.

Read my other blog Befriending Forty.