What schools say
“Wow! You’re great!”
“You’re a star!”
“You’re a winner!”
And the semantically perverse… “Everyone’s a winner!”
Things must have changed from the dark ages when I went to school. When there were winners there were, by definition, losers. But not today. Everyone’s a winner! Go us!
Here’s where we’ve got to so far
We’ve spent a bit of time working through the process of attributions, more latterly touching on the importance of being able to generate alternatives, evaluate them against each other, and look for evidence before we make the call about why things happened like they did.
Alongside this we talked a bit about being involved with your kids as they are developing attributions and so getting a handle on how they think. This stands us in good stead for later.
We’ve wrapped the skills we want our kids to learn into a game so that the skills develop more quickly.
What I want to do now is introduce you to a powerful influence on your children’s attributions, if you haven’t picked it already.
Let’s begin by splitting events into three kinds: good, bad, and neutral. And we’ll ignore the neutral because our attributions tend to be neutral too. What we want to do is understand an influence on how our kids process the good and the bad.
Straight off the bat, knowing that we’re all biased, we’ll do this: Good things happen to me because of me and what I did. Bad things happen to me because of things around me, but not me. You’ll recognise aspects of the fundamental attribution error here. I attribute positive events to internal causes, and negative events to external causes. From the outside, looking at me, you’d attribute my positive event to luck or something else external to me, and a negative event to something I did, something internal to me.
And then there’s this influence…
Maybe you’re like me, and you see kids coming home from school with a certificate every week for having a nice smile or putting hands up straight. I groan slightly into my coffee, wondering about what the teacher thinks they are achieving. (For starters, this is reward, not reinforcement, but let’s think about attributions.)
My 6 year old gets a certificate. Again. She’s happy. It’s a positive event. What does she think?
“I’m good at this.”
“The teacher likes me.”
She feels fluffy inside. That’s lovely. We buy a bigger fridge to handle this term’s certificates. She learns what, exactly? That success comes easily, and by doing simple, somewhat empty things which are easily praised. So do all the kids. Everything is praised. You did so well. Even if they didn’t, but we’re not allowed to use negative words because it might dent their self esteem.
The signal risk with this is that my kid’s attributions for good events are based on the tissue thin praise she receives from a well-meaning but ineffective strategy at school, that tells her she’s great just for turning up.
They do this so she feels good about herself. Lovely. She now just thinks she’s good, and she’s got certificates to prove it. Attribution for positive events? I’m good. Evidence? Certificates that are handed out every week. Hmmm.
Now let’s say she bombs so bad in a test that they cordon the suburb for shrapnel. What’s her attribution now? She’s been feeling lovely about herself because good things kept happening, obviously because of her. She never needed to try hard to get good things to happen before.
What went wrong?
She’ll scout around for attributions but, having had no experience with generating realistic alternatives and evaluating them, her understanding of good and bad is based only on her. When it’s bad, she’s forced to play angry blame games, finding every opportunity to avoid an internal attribution, or to blame herself entirely. Both are dangerous.
It’s not going away soon
Increasingly, schools are focused on putting a positive spin on everything, making everything sweetness and light, praising kids for being themselves, boosting everyone with praise. The problem is that when kids struggle, they have no footing for their attributions if all they get is esteem building positivity.
If they lose, fail, stumble, be honest enough to ask the questions about internal attributions. Well meaning praise and esteem building language in the context of defeat or failure is false. They’ll be sad. Fine. Upset. Miserable. Angry. All fine. They’re normal responses. Let them have them, and then move them into activity. Work on the attributions.
If they succeed, be honest enough to ask the questions about external attributions. How much luck or coincidence and so on. Remember, we’re aiming for them to be able to evaluate their own situations, examine them from third person perspective and develop a realistic attribution or set of attributions about cause. Here’s the benefit of being able to step outside yourself to look at a situation.
Did they really try hard enough? Maybe not if success always came easily and your fridge is the proof. Are they good enough to compete? Be honest. Can they do it? Really? Are they actually cut out for it? Should they try something else instead? Dumbest thing I ever did at school was take physics. Should have taken history.
This needs to happen in an environment of support and love so that they can openly examine attributions without fear. Now’s not the time for criticism or punishment, but for supportive evaluation from an adult they love and trust. Talk through the attributions. Most kids will, with enough discussion and sleuthing, get the right attributions and admit their own part.
There may very well be consequences, and I’m all for them, but, right time and place.
So ask the hard questions of external attributions for success and internal attributions for failure. If you’re rational at this point, so will they be.
So here’s the take home bit
Be sure that you do this with your kids and teenagers. They need to be able to to evaluate their own contribution to failure and the environmental contribution to success. Out of this comes stuff to improve, decisions and choices. Like history over physics rather than pride over admitting defeat…
Positivity, while lovely, is also a bit of a shroud for honesty, so better to have the hard conversations that lead to more resilient kids than the fluffy ones that teach them nothing.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Attributions, Hypothesis Evaluation, Self-esteem, Positivity, Fundamental Attribution Error
Tell me what you’ve seen?
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