Editors’ Note: This is Chris Knopp’s third article on “The Forever Years”. To learn more about Chris, see the “Guest Writers” section of this blog.
A few years ago the head boy at the school where I teach, stood up in front of the school community (peers, parents, staff) to deliver his final address at the end of the academic year. On many past occasions such speeches have followed the familiar pattern; a highlight or two from the past five years, usually including a reference to that particularly quirky teacher that everyone (staff included) sniggers at under their breath, an in-joke that only ‘the lads’ in the boarding house will get, and without fail, the advice passed on to those boys who have yet to become the big fish in the pond.
And what advice does a 18 year old boy pass on to his peers? Usually it is a re-worked message from, or an example set by, an icon – the Richie McCaws, Edmund Hillarys, and Steve Jobs of the world. It’s always appropriate, sincere, and eloquently phrased – they always do themselves and their school proud.
But that year was different. When Ed had finished entertaining us with the usual fare he shared with us all the advice his mother had given him five years earlier when he had been dropped at the school to begin his journey as a secondary boarding student. Written in the card she gave him were 6 simple words “Be good, work hard, have fun.” A simple message, yes, but one that had made a sufficient impact on a young man that not only had he kept the card and remembered the message, but felt it important enough to share with all of us.
I have heard more of these inspiring addresses than I care to remember, and even if I did care, I still can’t remember them. But this one is different – it keeps coming back to me. If I were limited to only one piece of advice to pass on to my three boys, I think those 6 words might be it. (And I’m sure my boys would be thrilled if I could actually limit it to just that, although knowing them they would consider it 3 pieces of advice and split it up – only one would be good, only one would work hard, and the other would only have fun!)
But let’s unpack what this is really saying.
“Be good” comes first. I like that. That’s how it should be – the most important thing. The values that inform your decisions, the respect you show others, the actions you take to improve things for those less fortunate. Above the door of our school library is a quote from the gospel of Luke “From those to whom much is given, much will be expected.” The concept of service to others, gratitude, and responsibility are values that should be central to our growing children. For me, “be good”, implies a spiritual imperative also. A rounded individual, a rounded education should not neglect this aspect of personal growth.
“Work hard” OK, so no one is going to dispute this one. This is probably the most commonly given piece of advice and it comes in so many different forms. “Do your best”, “Never give up”, “Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint” and on and on. It’s also an area where parents and teachers alike are guilty of sending mixed messages. At the end of the school year, the vast majority of students who walk across the stage at prizegiving are those who performed highly, not necessarily (or even that frequently), those who worked the hardest. We always give a nod to the diligent, the most improved, those with the right attitude, but at the end of the day, or year I suppose, it’s the academic excellence that we parade most proudly.
So often, praise is attached to the individual rather than to the action. Good boy, we say. Clever girl! If a child hears this repeatedly from birth, from parents and teachers, day in, day out, they learn one thing. Any positive view they have of themselves, or that others may have of them, is tied up entirely with results. ” What I did was good. What I said was clever.” If I can no longer keep up with doing or saying those things, I will no longer be good or clever – I’d better stick with just what I already know to keep up my confidence. And of course it works the other way too. Lack of achievement is seen as failure – “I’m bad at that, I’m not clever enough, I’m not sporty, I just don’t get technology”, etc. Most of us have a very clear perspective of our supposed limitations. Research has shown that children with fixed mindsets like this often end up employing a range of strategies; cheating, not attempting challenging tasks, deliberately identifying and associating with those who perform worse than themselves.
“Work hard” is valuable advice, but has no impact on a child unless they have a growth mind-set. They must first believe that their flaws are a TO-DO list of things to improve. They must first believe that it’s all about the process, so the outcome hardly matters. In fact the journey is the destination. In a growth mindset, you keep up your confidence by always pushing into the unfamiliar, to make sure you’re always learning. How do we develop this mind set? Praise the process, not the product. “I like the way you set out all your working for that maths problem.”, “Well done, on attending all your rugby practices this season!”, “Great to see you’ve got up to 7/10 on your spelling this week – let’s spend a little more time on them next week.” Etc. There is even a school of thought that believes that all praise is self–defeating. Simply state where they’re at without judgment– their motivation for improving is then intrinsic. It’s aimed at achieving the goal, not aimed at pleasing an adult.
Have Fun! Isn’t this what childhood is all about? Well, perhaps not all, but it’s certainly what we remember most. Taking joy in our physical ability – learning how to run, jump, throw, wrestle! Taking joy in laughter – I won’t claim the oft quoted urban-myth ‘statistic’ that kids laugh up to 20 times more than adults, but it certainly comes so much more readily and without the cynical or sarcastic edge that at times infects our own humour. And taking joy in others – developing friendships and sharing experiences.
Having fun is also how we develop or express our creativity. And every parent knows how to turn those difficult times with their kids into fun – homework, bedtimes, doing their chores, music practice, getting dressed, and so on. When we can muster our own creativity and sense of fun, we can turn even the most dreaded task into an enjoyable, positive, and memorable event for our children. I suspect that “have fun” ought to be the top priority piece of advice for parents – I know we already work hard enough, and are generally good enough, but I, for one, need to chill and more often be part of the fun my kids are already having.
Be good, work hard, have fun. Included in those 6 little words are three verbs. Doing words. This is not about intentions, this is a call for action. A prompt to look deeper into what this simple phrase might mean and a challenge to pass it on through how we live, not by what we say.
Growth Mind Set