Let Us Not Praise Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My name is Judy and I am a praise junkie. That is, I blanket my children with lavish compliments like, “you are the smartest, you are the best, you are second to none.” It turns out that I haven’t been doing my kids any favors with these endearments. In fact, there’s a raft of research over the past couple of decades that shows that unfocused praising of children puts a significant dent in their self-esteem.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been at the vanguard of studies about kids and praise. Dweck’s research grew out of a pattern that has been tracked for over 20 years—gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) were very unsure of their academic abilities. This perceived lack of competence caused them to lower their standards for success and to underestimate the importance of putting in effort towards a goal.

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But I’m not the only parent out there praising away. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s crucial to tell their kids how smart they are. My highly unscientific poll puts the number of fellow parental praise junkies out there at closer to 100 percent.

Why the constant praising and what do we do about it? I suppose we praise to reassure our kids and ourselves that they are not only wonderful, but also resilient—able to handle any challenge that comes their way. But in truth constant assurance has the opposite effect. The proof is on the ground. Ten years ago Dweck sent four research assistants into fifth-grade classrooms throughout New York City. The assistants administered a series of puzzles to two control groups randomly divided. The children in one group were praised for their intelligence as in “You must be smart at this.” The other group was lauded for their efforts as in, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next round, the two groups were asked to choose between a difficult or easy test. The results were astounding. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the harder test. The majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Commending a kid for his intelligence not only made him shy away from exerting effort, it also made him risk-averse.

The phenomenon of praising a child too often goes back to the 1969 publication of the Psychology of Self-Esteem. That landmark book asserted that high self-esteem was essential to a person’s well being. The notion trickled down to our kids; criticism was out and praise, even if it was undeserved, was now in vogue. I can remember soccer games that my children played when they were little where goals were not counted and every kid got a trophy. I was thrilled for my children, but was I and the other well-meaning adults around them doing the right thing by eliminating competition?

Dweck doesn’t think so. Her research has uncovered that high self-esteem is not necessarily connected to good grades or career success. It doesn’t reduce alcohol abuse or reduce violence. But Dweck isn’t advocating to jettison praise altogether. She found that fine-tuning praise, so that it’s specific and sincere, was very effective. To that end, her research further demonstrated that kids over 12 were suspicious of general praise from a teacher and took it as a sign that they weren’t doing well in class.

Fear of failure is another conundrum that results from overpraising. A well-meaning parent may gloss over a child’s failure by encouraging her to do better next time. The subtext of that message is that failure is so unacceptable it can’t be acknowledged. A lot of the psychology literature shows that responding to failure by trying harder instead of walking away from it suggests that there is more than willpower at work. Encouraging a child to do better next time can rewire a brain to respond more positively to failure. And a brain that learns to try harder instead of giving up is not as dependent on instant gratification. Nothing will short circuit the brain’s response to failure faster than frequent rewards—it’s a sure fire way to set up a kid’s brain for an actual addiction to constant incentives.

So what have I done about my own praise addiction? It seems to be less toxic than I thought.  My praise and criticism of my children’s performances in school has always been nuanced. But yes, in the long run I think almost everything they do is great. For example, the other day Anna asked me what I thought of an article she wrote for her college newspaper. I told her what I specifically liked about the piece. But I’m not completely cured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she forgot to insert a couple of commas

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Dragon Mothers and Grieving Parents by Judy Bolton-Fasman

There is no one fiercer or scarier or more real in this world than a dragon mother. Dragon mothers are mothers who grieve for children who have died or are terminally ill. Dragon mothers breathe fire and scorch everything in their path.

Emily Rapp is a dragon mother, a term she coined two years ago in a stunning essay simply entitled “Dragon Mothers.” Rapp is the mother of Ronan, an almost three year-old boy who died last month from Tay-Sachs disease. In her new memoir The Still Point of the Turning World, Rapp writes that at nine months her son was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs during a standard eye examination. The specialist had seen Ronan’s particular symptoms only once before.

RappBook

Rapp was shocked. During her pregnancy she had been tested twice for Tay-Sachs, and both times the test came back negative. She later learned that a standard Tay-Sachs screening covers only the nine most common mutations. Rapp, who is not Jewish, and her husband, who is, were carriers of a rare mutation. To put this in perspective, fewer than 20 children in the United States are born each year with Tay-Sachs to parents who, like Rapp, tested negative and thought they could cross that worry off their lists.

While Still Point is an elegy, it is also a remarkable book about the signposts of grief. Rapp writes that, “Ronan and I were on this singular path of motherhood-sonhood: one of us knew that the other would not survive. I was supposed to be guiding Ronan through this life and then out of it and into whatever came next, but much of the time I was flailing around in the unfathomable.”

The death of a child is unfathomable and I don’t have sage words for someone who has gone through the agony of burying a child; I can only look to Emily Rapp as my guide.  She asks her own excruciating question: “How do you parent without a future?” At first I avoided reading Rapp’s book and tried to skirt the topic of grieving parents altogether. But I found her narrative both raw and compelling and uplifting—things I wanted to share. I learned that parenting without a future is both a despairing and optimistic act. “My task as [my son’s] myth writer,” says Rapp, “was still to understand my son as a person and a being who was independent of me and yet dependent on my actions, my attention, my love.” Rapp’s words also point to the ultimate lesson that Ronan taught his mother: Children do not exist to honor their parents; their parents exist to honor them.

Having a child confirms our mortality and, as Rapp notes, the truth about life is that “it exists side by side with death.” I think the way that we Jews say the Kaddish for a child shows how acutely aware we are of this intimate pairing of life and death. While one is obligated to say the Kaddish for a parent for 11 months, a parent is only required to say the Kaddish for a child for 30 days. There are practical reasons for that short formal period of mourning that hark back to a time when infant mortality was high, making the recitation of the Kaddish necessarily truncated. There was also the practical consideration that spending almost a year saying the Kaddish is difficult for parents who also have other children to care for. Yet grief doesn’t have an end-date.

Upon hearing about someone’s death for the first time, Jews say Baruch Dayan HaEmet—Blessed are you G-d who is the true judge. But how can one utter those words when a child has died? The theologian C.S. Lewis asked “Where is G-d during one of the most disquieting symptoms [of grief]?” I turned to a wise friend for advice about G-d’s seeming absence. “If you will allow,” she wrote to me, “I will offer instead of Baruch Dayan HaEmet the words, HaMakom Yinachem.  May you find comfort in the embrace of God, who, while we may never understand the tragedies of the world God has created, is ‘with’ us in the sadness.”

My friend’s words make me think about the limits of empathy. C.S. Lewis takes that notion a step further. “You can’t really share someone else’s weakness, or fear or pain,” he writes. By way of illustration, Rapp adds “You can’t really test the strength of a rope until you’re asked to hang from it over a cliff. There have to be stakes.”

I think Emily Rapp is asking her readers for something deeper than empathy or sympathy. She raises the stakes by asking us to “look straight at [death] without blinking.” Perhaps openly grappling with death is the radical act of empathy we are obligated to bestow on grieving parents and dragon mothers.

 

Sticks and Stones: Emily Bazelon’s Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Emily Bazelon has written an important book in which she contends that many of the root causes of bullying in schools can be defeated. She takes schools to task through the stories of three teenagers who experience the extreme toxicity of bullying.

Monique McClain is an African-American middle school student in Connecticut whose woes began in that incubator of bad behavior—the school bus. As seen in Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary Bully, the bus is literally the vehicle where violence and cruelty mushroom like a noxious cloud. Monique experiences the random nastiness of two eighth-grade girls, which has a domino effect off the bus. The bullying is so bad that she eventually withdraws from school. After her mother and grandmother vociferously advocate for Monique, she’s permitted to enroll in a magnet school. Was Monique bullied out of her school or was she rattled by the everyday girl drama that young teenage girls conjure? In Bazelon’s view it was a bit of both.

Jacob Lasher is a gay boy from upstate New York who endured taunts and physical aggression, but also played the part of the provocateur. Although he may not have seen it that way, Jacob’s strong identity as a gay boy educated his teachers and the clueless superintendent of his school district about gay teens and the risks they face. A 2009 survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender) reported that they had been verbally harassed at school. Forty percent had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 20 percent had been physically assaulted.

Jacob’s story also explores the psyche of his tormentor Aaron. Aaron is what is commonly referred to in psychology literature as the bully-victim. Bully-victims are as prone to depression and suicide as their counterparts. They hope their extreme behavior changes other kids’ perceptions of them, making it clear that they don’t want to be picked on. Jacob eventually prevails in a lawsuit against the school district, which forces teachers and administrators to implement safety measures for LGBT kids.

Through Jacob’s story, Bazelon makes three crucial points about mitigating the effects of bullying for gay kids. Parental support is essential in shepherding these teens through a tough time. She also notes “we have to hold two ideas about gay teens in our minds at once—they are more at risk, and yet most of them will be okay.” Her final point is something that I fervently believe in—that a Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a high school can be one of the “strongest bulwarks a school can erect against anti-gay harassment. LGBT students at these schools tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often and feel a greater sense of belonging.”

sticksandstones

Bazelon’s book grew out of her extensive reporting for Slate about Phoebe Prince’s suicide in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe, the third teenager profiled in the book, was a pretty freshman at South Hadley High School who arrived earlier that summer from Ireland. She immediately attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and the ire of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Phoebe’s popularity with older boys miffed other girls at school too. A few of them began a campaign of harassment that ended in Phoebe hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

I wrote about Phoebe Prince’s death two years ago. At the time I called the South Hadley administrators and teachers criminal for the way they ignored Phoebe’s distress. Bazelon went to South Hadley expecting to find the “black hearted monsters” that I portrayed in my column. Instead she found shades of gray and she reports on the case through the point of view of one of the six teenagers initially indicted on criminal charges for Phoebe’s death. Like her peers, Flannery Mullins underestimated Phoebe Prince’s vulnerability. Although I stand by much of my initial impressions of the bullying that played a part in Phoebe’s suicide, I learned from Bazelon that many factors contributed to Phoebe’s tragic death. She had a history of depression and cutting and she easily fell into high-risk relationships with boys prior to arriving in South Hadley.

In Bazelon’s view “an overzealous prosecutor decided to reduce all the complexity [of the case] into one clean narrative: Phoebe Prince was bullied to death.” What I didn’t take into account in my article was Phoebe’s difficult past, the fluidity of teenage relationships as well as the reality that the correlation between bullying and suicide is complicated. It’s true that kids who are bullied are more likely to think about or attempt suicide. But in the end it comes down to a chicken-and-egg question. Are kids who are depressed more susceptible to the effects of bullying or does bullying cause kids to become suicidal?

Then there is the relentless, 24-hour world of the Internet, which presents a challenge to schools. At Monique’s former middle school, there was a concerted effort to report inappropriate pages to Facebook to little or no avail. At a private Catholic girl school, Bazelon reports, an extraordinary example of peer mentoring in which senior girls helped freshman and sophomores prune their Facebook pages.

A Pew Center Survey from 2011 estimates that 15 percent of teens that are ages 12 to 17 said they were harassed on-line. With 800 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world. Reports estimate that 20 million teens and preteens are on Facebook and one million of them took the time to report bullying and harassment on the site to little effect. Bazelon visits Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley and discovers that the site has done shockingly little to keep kids safe. “As a parent,” writes Bazelon, “I wish I could tell you that FB gets it, that it’s a company willing to forego short term profits for the sake of safe-guarding the privacy and well-being of its young users. But I can’t.”

A negative comment on Facebook or texting an inappropriate picture cannot only spread like wildfire, but has a kind of permanence to it that can follow someone forever. Despite the overwhelming problem that the Web perpetuates when it comes to bullying, parents still have a big role to play in deterring their children from doing the wrong thing. Bazelon reports that for a 2009 study, researchers asked middle school and high school students what would prevent them from bullying on and off-line; parental discipline was first on the list.

Bullying may never go away. But I firmly believe that schools can and must transform their cultures into ones in which bullying is unacceptable. Teachers and administrators would do well to begin with the adage that, “If it’s mean, then intervene.” And as the subtitle of Bazelon’s trailblazing book says, developing character and empathy in our children is the strongest antidote to bullying.

Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath Meets Elizabeth Wurtzel by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week I was marooned on my couch with a virus and finally watched the first season of Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO drama about 20-somethings finding their way in New York City. Dunham is very serious about her enterprise, and even the show’s light-hearted moments — which are few and far between — are laden with meaning. At times, watching the series felt more like homework than entertainment.

But I had heard so much about Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter ego, that I needed to meet her myself.  Like many women in middle age, I wasn’t resistant to looking back at my youth. I’m not the like the doctor who examines Hannah for an STD, who swears she’d never want to go back to her 20s. If anything, I’m jealous of the limitless sky, the time that drains into more time of your 20s. Maybe that’s glossy hindsight, but it’s also the raw truth.

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath

I loved that Hannah, who is an aspiring writer, is no wunderkind. She’s so plodding and so damned inexperienced. She spends more time talking about writing than actually tapping out the personal essays she aspires to write. She has feckless boyfriends and a job in a coffee shop tellingly called Café Grumpy (an actual café in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—think Tom’s Restaurant, the real-life Upper West Side diner featured in Seinfeld) that sort of pays the bills. She’s in the quagmire that a lot of 20-somethings are in, but she doesn’t seem hopelessly stuck.

Elizabeth Wurtzel, another writer famous for exploring the 20-something state of being, is a 180-degree turn away from Dunham. At 45, Wurtzel is less nostalgic and more obsessive about being trapped in her 20s mindset. I can’t tell if Hannah’s young adult cluelessness is an object of derision or envy for the middle-aged Wurtzel, best known as the enfant terrible behind the best-selling memoir “Prozac Nation,” which she published two decades ago at the age of 24. The book launched her into celebrity and enabled her to make a “career out of my emotions.”

If only Hannah Horvath were so lucky. If only I had been that lucky (or savvy enough) to profit from my own anxiety and depression. There was a huge advance for Wurtzel’s second book, the one where she appeared topless on the cover with her middle finger prominently extended. What else could the book be called but “Bitch,” a rant about sexually manipulative women? Who wouldn’t be a little jealous of that kind of success in one’s twenties? But then again, who wouldn’t be terrified of losing her edge after peaking so early?

The bottom line is that Wurtzel is a cautionary tale for Hannah and her pals. In her recent [New York Magazine essay](http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/01/elizabeth-wurtzel-on-self-help.html), Wurtzel made it clear that she’s not only afraid of growing up, she’s also terrified of getting older. And who can blame her? After all, at 45, she’s still living in a crummy apartment with a nutty landlady and she’s “always in love—or else I am getting over the last person or getting started with the next one.” The only justification she comes up with for her Never-Never Land existence is that she still fits into the same clothes she wore at 24. I’ll keep my two kids and the extra thirty pounds, thank you.

Hannah thinks she is the voice of her generation. At least that’s what she tells her parents as she appeals to stay on their bankroll. And Wurtzel still thinks she’s the voice of her generation. In yet another sad essay for [Harper’s Bazaar](http://www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/health-wellness-articles/looking-better-at-45-than-25#slide-1), Wurtzel writes that she wouldn’t have dreamed of going on parental welfare at Hannah’s age. “Even with my Harvard degree, when I ran out of money while writing my first book, I was happier to serve cocktails in high heels than to get money from my mom. And now I walk miles in Marnie’s five-inch platform T-straps.” It’s a shame that the quest for early independence only leads to an ability to tolerate high heels in middle age.

Which brings me to Wurtzel’s puffed-up assertion that she’s in better physical shape than someone “about half my age.” She’s in the kind of shape that comes easily to a woman who hasn’t worried about someone other than herself. She holds up Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin as women who are in “amazing physical condition, and [that] have a personal style and coruscating charisma.” Oh Elizabeth, only you could find that kind of superficial common ground between these women.

Hannah doesn’t glitter or charm in Wurtzel’s world. She’s the 20-something that Wurtzel has in mind when she decries the “slovenliness” of today’s young women. By her own calculation, Hannah is 13 pounds overweight. As far as I can tell, she never blow-dries her hair and she almost always leaves the house without lipstick.

Watching those episodes of Girls back to back, I realized how far women have come from my second-wave feminism to Hannah’s fourth-wave feminism. Hannah doesn’t feel guilty about sleeping around, she doesn’t think that men foisted the sexual revolution on women so they wouldn’t have to marry them and she doesn’t hear even a faint ticking of her biological clock.

Unlike Wurtzel, I don’t think Hannah will indulge in a string of one-night stands in middle age or be stuck in an overheated apartment in “the dungeon equivalent of a neighborhood.” And she surely won’t cling to the girl she once was, because once upon a time she looked and did exactly as she pleased. That’s the true beauty of her generation.

 

A Men’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women – White Ribbon Day by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My Dearest Son:

I have no doubt that you will grow up to be a good man because you have been raised by the best man I know. That is why it is so important to me that you know that today is the Sixth Annual White Ribbon Day in Massachusetts. Men, like Dad and your uncles—and other men from various walks of life—will converge at the State House to declare publicly that each of them is accountable to end the ongoing violence against women.

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Accountability can seem daunting to a young teenager like you. But don’t be scared by accountability in life. Relish it. Instead, be alarmed by the lack of accountability, particularly when it comes to treating women with full human dignity. I know that you think a lot about human rights for all people, and one of the most fundamental rights in this world is for women and girls to be safe in their communities and their homes.

You’ll be interested to know that the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) was created in 1991 by a small group of Canadian men with a focus on what men could do to end domestic violence and sexual assaults. The first White Ribbon Day grew out of their campaign to commemorate the second anniversary of the murder of fourteen women in Montreal at the hands of one man. Today, the WRC is active in 60 countries and according to Jane Doe, Inc.—The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence—more than 5 million signatures have been garnered all over the world in support of WRC’s mission.

We’ve been on the Jane Doe site together and I saw how affected you were by the fact that anyone who is abused can quickly click out of the site without a trace of a visit if he or she is discovered looking for information. That safety measure opened my eyes too. WRC calls on all men to stand up against crimes against women, and yes it is a crime to be controlled and frightened into submission. Autonomy is one of the greatest gifts that you can cultivate in your children.

WRC is very clear that this is a men’s campaign where the focus is promoting positive male role models. This means that the campaign is for you, for your future. Your father and I don’t want you to live in a world where women are afraid for their lives. We don’t want you to live in a world where you feel hopeless and helpless to help the women around you.

Your father is a gentle man and that is his greatest strength. That kind of role modeling is the most precious gift that he can give to you. I know that you understand that there are all sorts of boys. Strength and thoughtfulness, bravery and sensitivity, artistry and athleticism are not mutually exclusive. Men are so pressured not to show a softer side. I hope and pray that by the time you are a grown man, society will reward men’s difference instead of humiliating them into ill-fitting stereotypes.

There is a formal pledge that you can take through WRC to end all violence against women and men alike. And there is that white ribbon you can wear. You may wonder why the color white. In all of the reading I’ve done about WRC’s commitment to healthy relationships, gender equality and raising boys with a new vision of masculinity, I haven’t specifically seen an explanation for why the color white was chosen. White has a lot of traditional associations that connote a fresh start. White is also the result of mixing all the colors of the rainbow. It’s every color, which is a rich metaphor for acceptance. White is also deeply illuminating, which is what I hope you will be—illuminated, educated, proactive and ever so gentle on this White Ribbon Day, and every day.

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Boston Globe’s The Podium

 

 

 

Shouting Won’t Help: A Book Review by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Katherine Bouton was 30 years old she suddenly lost the hearing in her left ear. As she notes in her new book, a mix of memoir and reference guide for the hearing impaired, Bouton was suddenly among the 48 million Americans, or 17 percent of the population, who have some degree of hearing loss.

In “Shouting Won’t Help,’’ journalist Bouton puts a human face on these numbers by chronicling her own long, steady descent into deafness — a word that she claims to describe her “invisible disability.’’ Using her own personal narrative as a kind of locus, she explores the medical and environmental causes of deafness, the social stigma attached to it, technologies to help, and professional challenges faced by those with hearing loss. To broaden her tale she ends each chapter with a short piece titled “Voices,’’ which profiles the stories and hardships of various other sufferers.

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In Bouton’s case it took almost three decades to come to terms with what was happening to her. But, as she reports from the front lines, denial is pervasive among people when they begin to lose their hearing. A statistic from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that only one in five people who would benefit from a hearing aid uses one.

Bouton stubbornly refused to acknowledge how difficult it had become for her to hear. Hearing loss and its consequences invariably bring on stages similar to grief. Denial gives way to anger and family often bears the brunt of that anger. Bouton almost lost her marriage while she tried to keep her hearing loss and the inevitable depression that went along with it at bay.

Next comes acceptance. But before Bouton gets to acceptance she gives her readers a bevy of statistics that illuminate but occasionally slow down her book. She’s at her best when she addresses her dilemma through her own story.

The reader struggles beside her as she goes deaf and scrambles to hear what’s being said at a work meeting or a Broadway show. “Even when I do understand what is being said,” she writes, “the effort of trying to hear eclipses my ability to think. My brain is so preoccupied with translating the sounds into words that it seems to have no processing power left over to dig into the storerooms of memory for a response.”

Bouton eventually got a cochlear implant in her left ear and spent many frustrating visits to her audiologist upgrading the hearing aid in her right. She freely admits that she’s not a cooperative patient. The implant was slow to take, and she was embarrassed to have it embedded in her skull.

Her vanity, she reports, “exasperated” everyone around her and she had a hard time wearing the implant. Her persistent denial led to her departure as culture editor at The New York Times, where one boss questioned her ability to be “a team player.” And still Bouton could not bear to think of herself as a person with a disability and consider the protections and prospect of accommodations guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s understandable why Bouton studded her book with studies and statistics. She has taken it upon herself to educate the public about hearing loss and fittingly ends with a description of a collaborative project dedicated to finding a biological cure for hearing loss over the next decade. But her fascinating memoir deserves more attention because she has an equally important life story to impart.

Published in the February 18, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe