If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you know they like to have fun with their safety announcements. I’ll never forget one that completely took me off guard – so funny and so wrong at the same time.
“In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask will drop down from the ceiling,” the polite stewardess tells us. You know how your mind starts to drift at this point?
Then she continues, “If you are flying with a child today, please secure your mask before helping your child. If you happen to be flying with more than one child, choose the one with the greatest potential first.”
The plane erupted in laughter. I recall having this strong dichotomous reaction. I appreciate sarcasm and have a dry sense of humor; it was very funny.
At the same time, it made me wonder: How does our subconscious bias affect the way we treat children?
There was an article a few years ago published in Scientific American about gender bias in science. While we have come a long way in reducing bias, it still exists.
Two groups of Yale professors were given the exact same application for a research assistant position. The only difference between the two? One had the name of a male, the other a female.
You guessed right. While both groups had the same exact application, the male was given preference toward hireability, willingness to mentor, and starting salary.
So if bias exists, it can affect our praise and criticism of children. I don’t believe teachers or parents CHOOSE to criticize children more than praise them. I believe it happens on a subconscious level.
Becoming aware of our biases can reduce our negativity.
How does negative criticism affect school performance and identity development?
We missed a really important study almost 100 years ago. In 1925, Dr. Hurlock wondered what would happen when 4th – 6th graders received different feedback on their work.
She set up 4 groups.
- The first group received praise for correct answers
- The second group received criticism for wrong answers
- The third group was ignored yet they witnessed others being praised and criticized
- The fourth group (control group) was moved to another room after the first test and received no feedback on their work
The students who were praised and criticized both performed better after the first test. Then their performance changed dramatically. Students who were criticized showed a major decline over time. The overall improvement by group was:
Praised – 71%
Criticized – 19%
Ignored – 5%
I won’t bore you with more studies that demonstrate bias and the negative effects of harsh criticism. I think we agree, it exists, and it can be harmful.
Becoming aware of our biases may help reconcile subconscious motives with conscious action. It is about being mindful so that we can be intentional in how we teach and raise kids.
For instance, meet Chris Ulmer, a special ed teacher in Florida who starts every class by making daily deposits in the emotional banks of his students. He calls each child up, and says things like, “You’re smart, you’re funny. You make people laugh.”
Way to go, Chris! This is an excellent example of helping children see and value their strengths.
Now I am in no way suggesting there is no place for criticism. I am very hard on my boys and have high expectations for how they treat people. I am also hard on my students and will be direct if I see something that needs to be addressed.
My point is that our negative criticism is sometimes a projection. I made this mistake recently when a pep rally at my school went south. I was frustrated because I took class time away from the teachers and I let the student body president know how I felt.
The criticism was warranted, but my delivery was harsh. This young man needed to know I was disappointed in the result, but I forgot to sandwich my criticism with the fact that he is A.) an exceptional young man with whom I am quite proud, B.) I expect better results, and C.) I have every confidence in his ability to do the job.
I allowed some things in my personal life to affect my reaction. We have all seen the effects of projecting onto young people:
The father who criticizes his son after every poor performance on the athletic field may be trying to relive his own athletic dreams through his child.
The mom who criticizes a child’s academic progress because she sits behind her friend in the car pool line with seventeen “my child is an honor roll student” bumper stickers.
Then there is social media. How often do we look at our friend’s Facebook post and subconsciously compare our situation to theirs?
All of this can affect how we treat our children if we are not mindful.
Here are 3 ways mindfulness can help us as parents and as teachers:
- Quiet Time: Sit and reflect on your own thoughts and experiences. God will speak to you in your quiet time. Meditate on your thoughts and feelings so that the negative ones do not filter into your teaching and parenting.
- The Magic Ratio: Research shows it takes 5 positive interactions to counterbalance a negative one. If you need to make a withdrawal through criticism, you better have made at least 5 deposits of praise.
- Praise and Challenge: You can cut back on negative criticism if you focus more on praising the desired behavior. Praise -> Challenge – > Praise -> Repeat. Children need to be challenged, but if you praise the behaviors you are shaping, they are more likely to stick than punishing the ones you want to extinguish.
I heard the best story last week.
My leadership team starts our weekly meetings with prayer and a devotion. At our last meeting, my registrar shared a quote by Lillian Carter, the mother of President Jimmy Carter. On the day of his inauguration, a reporter remarked to her, “You must be very proud of your son.”
Miss Lillian, as she was known in the press, replied, “Which one?”