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Emotionally intelligent parenting

As a headteacher one of the most frustrating things I had to deal with was parents who complied with their children’s fragility and, however well-meaningly, gave their children excuses that would get them out of things they didn’t want to do…

Let’s take the case of a student that we will call Mick. I was delighted to involve him in a community play that I was directing since he usually avoided this kind of commitment despite the fact that he had real acting potential and it built his self-confidence massively. He hung on to rehearsals for several weeks and then – when things were building up to performance – he arrived with a note from Mum saying he wouldn’t be able to make it any more because of prior family commitment. His body language suggested that this was a fabrication that he’d got Mum to create to get him out of it. I was saddened by this missed opportunity and wondered – as I still do nearly 20 years later – what long-term damage this did to his capacity to embrace struggle and stick with things when the going got tough…

In many schools that I work with these days, I hear school leaders talking about those parents who step in and intercede too readily on their children’s behalf. Emotionally intelligent parents know that it’s best to ensure that their children are supported to enjoy the struggles of life and adopt what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.

Much of this comes back to what we do when we praise our children. Dweck’s research is quite clear: never praise the person – always praise the effort and the strategy:

I like the way you worked your way through this…you’ve put in a lot of time and effort here…although you didn’t quite get there, you’re thinking in the right ways here…

This will build resilient young people who learn from their mistakes, are realistic about themselves, take personal responsibility, don’t blame others for their own shortcomings and are, as a consequence, the architects of their own improvement.

I told this story to a group of sixth formers when talking at a conference in Birmingham a couple of years ago:

I’m waiting to hear how my son Tom has got on in a crucial module exam the results of which will impact on his final degree marks and his wish to continue onto a Masters course. He’s going to text me in the next half hour is it OK if I keep my phone out on the table?

[They were eager by then to know his result]

Let’s suppose – I continued – that his result is disappointing; since you are nearer in age to him than me, I need your advice about what I should do. There are five choices, I could say…

  • Never mind Tom, there’s more to life than what you do in exams – you’ll get over it
  • OK so what can you learn from this to put right in the future?
  • I’ll put some money in your account – take your girlfriend out for an evening
  • What you were saying about the quality of teaching makes me wonder if you were prepared properly for this
  • This is clearly not fair, all your scores so far haven’t suggested this outcome – some questions need to be asked about the marking – can you appeal
[I asked the students to consider the options and vote accordingly – the overwhelming majority chose the third option].

So what would you do – as a parent or as a teacher – what response would build greater resilience and support the cultivation of a growth mindset?

[A little later, the phone binged, the room went instantaneously silent and I asked if they would like to know if it was from Tom and if they wanted to know how he had got on – they screamed out Of course. I read out his text: Results deferred – will hear tomorrow. Six months later, I ran into some of these students at another event – one of them rushed up to me and asked: How did your son get on with his exam? – which says a lot about the power of narrative and personal exposure in teaching…but that’s the focus for another blog].

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