Monthly Archives: April 2014

Learning for Life, not for Rewards

The book that has had the most effect on me in in my life, in terms of how I look at the world, is a piece of non-fiction called Next of Kin by Roger Fouts. Fouts was a research assistant on the very first project teaching a chimp American Sign Language (“Project Washoe”). The book taught me many things: the process of language acquisition, the origins of human language, the profound similarity between humans and chimps and the vanity of thinking we are so different from other animals. What Fouts learnt from researching chimps was that we should not be researching chimps. (He went on to found a sanctuary for laboratory chimps.)

There are so many aspects of the chimps’ behaviour that give us insight into human behaviour that I could not possibly mention them all here. However, I will share one right now, which has been playing on my mind as I think about how I teach my children. It is a passage where Fouts describes the process of learning. He states that conditioning, which is often used to “teach” research animals to behave a certain way, is entirely contrary to learning. A system of reward and punishment actually hinders a subject’s natural capacity and curiosity to learn. Fouts quotes Desmond Morris when he observed chimps doing freehand drawings. Chimps love to draw, much as young children do. Initially the chimps would take a long time over each drawing, carefully making the desired lines on the page. But once the researchers started to give a reward each time the chimp did a drawing, hoping to increase the frequency of the activity, an interesting thing happened: the quality of what each chimp produced went markedly down. Morris says

 Any old scribble would do and then it [the chimp] would immediately hold out its hand for the reward. The careful attention the animal had paid previously …was gone, and the worst kind of commercial art was born!

When I read this I was immediately struck by what that meant in terms of teaching my children. Were the sticker charts I sometimes get out for them in fact holding them back?

I have been teaching my children to read and write for the last 18 months while living abroad. Initially, I would do activities with them to teach them a particular sound, and I would give them a sticker for each activity they did. They had a sticker chart to mark their progress, with the promise of a little gift or treat once the chart was completed. This worked quite well, although I noticed they were much keener to do the work when their chart was very near completion. All of a sudden they wanted to read three books in a row, or do multiple writing activities to reach the goal. Of course that’s not really what I wanted, as reading three books in a row without much care isn’t as useful as one carefully read book a day for three days. I also noticed that once a new sticker chart was started, they were much less interested in doing the work, as the promised treat seemed a long way off.

This isn’t really surprising behaviour, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the sticker chart itself might be a stumbling block to their learning. Without realising it, I had made the achievement of stickers appear more desirable than the achievement of being able to read a book. I started to think about the fact that if I wanted them to do reading and writing, they needed to want to do it too. So I had to make the activity attractive enough that to capture their interest and curiosity. As Fouts says,

Learning cannot be controlled; it is out of control by design. Learning emerges spontaneously, it proceeds in an individualistic and unpredictable way, and it achieves its goal in its own good time.

This is wonderful in theory, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes I just feel out of ideas, and often they would probably rather play freely than do what I suggest. And sometimes you just need your children to learn what you are teaching. But the times when I have been a little more imaginative, the children have been much more engaged and able to concentrate for longer. I also avoid giving them a sticker for an activity that they have enjoyed, so that they don’t get the idea that what they just did was in fact work!

All this also made me question the use of sticker charts, or regular rewards, in general. I’ve watched Super Nanny – I’ve seen the results of a well-used sticker chart. But is it possible that we are made to believe that they are the only way to get our children to behave or do what we want? Should we be conditioning our children so readily? Maybe we need to take more effort to make the behaviour or activity an end in itself. The problem with giving consistent rewards for a given behaviour is that once you take away the reward, the behaviour may disappear also. I don’t want my children to stop reading because I don’t give them a sticker after each book. I want them to pick up the book because they enjoy reading. In the same way, I don’t want my children to stop eating their vegetables because they aren’t getting a sticker for it; I want them to eat vegetables because they understand it’s good for them. If conditioning inhibits natural learning, I think it also inhibits natural good habits.

I’m certainly not suggesting we should not reward children for doing something good. I think encouragement and praise are very important for children and adults alike. I just think that when we give an automatic reward consistently each time a child does something we want, we are teaching he or she the value of rewards, rather than the intrinsic value of the behaviour. There are always times when the benefit of what we want our children to do is much more obvious to us than to them, and I am not opposed to a good dose of bribery in those cases. And sometimes I find that the use of rewards is the only way to promote certain behaviours that I have failed to cajole, explain or rant into being. But before I reach out for the trusty sticker chart again, I will try to see what I can do to turn something that I want my children to do into something that they want to do for themselves.


Where the F*** are my Slippers?

I am constantly asking my children to wear their slippers in the house, as our floors are hard and easy to slip on in socks. It doesn’t matter how many times I ask, it always seems to be surprising news to them. Here is a typical daily conversation with my daughter:

Me: Where are your slippers?

Her (in a joyful, sing-songy voice): I have no idea, mummy.

Me: When did you last have them?

Her: I don’t remember.

Me (getting irate): How can you not remember? Go and look!

(Off she goes and returns merrily some minutes later)

Her: Good news, mummy, I found one of them!

This would all seem like normal child/parent behaviour, only I end up having a little pang of guilt as I say the words. The reason? Because more often than I would like to admit, I end up saying to myself (away from children’s earshot, naturally) “where the f*** are my slippers?” And I have absolutely no idea where they are, or even any recollection of where I last had them. Replace ‘slippers’ with ‘mobile phone’, ‘handbag’, ‘car keys’ and you get a pretty good gist of how I spend my days, not to mention how organised I am.

Once again I am aware that I have turned into a hypocrite. It turns out that everything I get fed up with my children for doing, are the very frustrating behaviours I have myself. Even worse, they are the behaviours I remember my mother complaining about when I was young. I lose things. I get distracted. I eat slowly. I avoid tasks I don’t like doing. I don’t tidy things away. The list goes on.

Of course the worst part is the knowledge that children can sniff out hypocrisy like bloodhounds. So I end up with three options:

  1. Try to hide my not-so-good behaviours from my children
  2. Try to improve my behaviours
  3. Care less about their not-so-good behaviours.

The first one is not an option. They are going to notice that I am hunting around for car keys while they are waiting at the door, or that I’m wearing socks when I’m telling them to look for their slippers. The second one is clearly the best, noblest option. But I know that I am simply not going to turn into someone who keeps an immaculately tidy house, who never procrastinates and who knows where everything is at any one time. In fact, I think I would find someone who was capable of all that a little bit frightening.

So that leads on to number 3. Obviously, as a parent, I want my children to be the best little people they can be. But part of that is recognising that they will never be perfect, or rather, that it is their ‘imperfections’ that make them the wonderful little people they are. My daughter’s head is often in the clouds. In her mind it makes perfect sense to wear just the one slipper, and have the other one stuffed down the back of the sofa. It’s what makes her so imaginative. My son wants to do everything as carefully as he can, which is why cutting up his food or getting dressed can take an eternity. It’s also what makes him so precise with his drawings and so honest when he’s done something he shouldn’t have.

On the other hand, I still have a duty to get them to improve certain behaviours, but I just need to keep in mind that my expectations should be compatible with their personality. My daughter will probably always be a little disorganised, so trying to turn her into an organised person is probably impossible (especially as she doesn’t have the best example to follow!) The best I can hope is to help her be more organised. My son will probably always have a preference for precision over speed, but I can help him balance the two a little more. I need to become a little more accepting of their strengths and weaknesses, and realise that while I may have influence over these, it is limited.

As for me? I am going to become more accepting of my own weaknesses. I have come up with another option:

  1. Accept hypocrisy as a natural part of parenthood.




Maternal – Instinct?

Recently a few people I know have had babies and it made me think back to when I had my own, and how the reality of having children is so different from your expectations in so many ways. One of the expectations I had was that I would immediately develop a “maternal instinct” that would switch on as soon as I gave birth. It is something you always hear about – that mothers instinctively know exactly why their baby is crying, and how best to console them. I had always loved babies and children and so I didn’t ever doubt that I would have this instinct.

So I gave birth to twins. And they cried. So I fed them. And they cried.  So I changed them. And they cried. So I burped them. And they cried. So I cuddled them. And they cried. And I cried, because I still had no blooming idea what was the matter.  Their cries sounded like baby cries, and I had no better idea than before I had given birth what they meant. Never in my life had I considered that I would be one of “those” mothers who don’t get the maternal instinct. If I, who loved children from the moment of still being a child myself, couldn’t develop it, what did this mean? All those years I had thought I was cut out for motherhood must have been a delusion because here I was failing at the first test!

When you are in the throes of dealing with sleepless nights, colic, and physically recovering from the trauma of birth, you don’t think straight. I wasn’t able to sit back and look logically at what was happening (there wasn’t the time!) I just kept waiting for something to “kick in”. I looked at other people around me who would say with assurance “they’re hungry” or “they have wind” and I would accept it as fact, because I had nothing inside me telling me otherwise. No preternatural ability, no primitive instinct switched on in my gut. I was lost at sea, rotating through a series of possible solutions to their cries; hunger, trapped wind, wet nappy, too hot, too cold, too lonely. I felt ashamed that those around me seemed to know better than I did what my babies needed.

Now those days are so far behind me, and the idea that someone else would know my children’s needs better than I do seems thankfully alien to me. I’m not saying I always get it right, but through those first few months and years of sleepless nights, the colic, the tears, the booboos, the giggles, the cuddles you come out the other side having a pretty good idea what your children need. It’s precisely through that floundering and not knowing what the heck you are doing you end up knowing your child’s every mood, facial expression, like and dislike.

If there is such a thing as maternal instinct, it’s the instinct that you want to find an answer; you want the crying to stop, you want to understand your child’s noises, you want to know how to make them happy, how to get them to behave, how to get them to eat their vegetables. You keep trying, failing, and trying again. You get it wrong. You think other parents manage better than you. (You also think some parents are loopy…) But at the end of the day no one else knows and loves your children as you do.

So for anyone who is about to, or has just had a baby, be patient. Maternal instinct is not a switch, it’s more like a rapidly changing dimmer that converges to “on” without ever really reaching it. You just get more comfortable with not having any idea what you’re doing – just as you master one skill, another problem will come up that you’ve never seen before, and you have to make it up as you go along all over again.  None of us know what we’re doing, we just do what we can and hope for the best.





How Do Reindeer Fly?

I like teaching my children. I love it when they ask me questions like “What makes a rainbow?” and “Why do we have lips?”  I encourage their natural curiosity and try to give them a simple grounding in science and nature. But every so often come those slightly awkward questions, like “how do reindeer fly?” I was caught off-guard with this one, distracted by the bed-time mayhem, and at first answered “well, they can’t.”  But when I saw their confused little wide-eyed faces looking up at me saying , “but how does the sleigh fly then?” I realised my terrible mistake. I quickly backtracked. “Oh, you mean Father Christmas’s reindeer. Oh that’s something different. They have special magic.”

And here-in lies that delicate dance parents have between teaching their children science while allowing them a childhood filled with magic. I have taught my children about how drops of water bend the sunlight to make rainbows at the same time as telling them stories about pots of gold at the end of them. The incongruity of it isn’t lost on me, but I couldn’t possibly imagine bringing up my children without their believing in magic, Father Christmas and the tooth fairy.  It may be an inconsistent approach to teaching children, but it’s one I stand by.

I often ask myself, how do I draw the line? Which parts do I give the “honest” answer to, and which parts do I allow them a little whimsy? Am I clouding their understanding of nature, explaining on the one hand that animals need wings to fly, while telling them Father Christmas’s reindeer can do it without them? And, crucially, are they going to start thinking they can defy gravity and fly without wings if they believe a little too readily in it? My answer is, I make it up as I go along.  I answer with science 90% of the time, and give them just a little magic the rest of the time.  Learning the laws of nature, and knowing how to observe and understand the world around us is incredibly important. But so is believing in magic.

Growing up I believed easily in everything. I believed so firmly in Father Christmas that even when other children at school started to tell me that it was my parents filling the stockings, I simply did not believe them. “I have proof – he wrote me a letter,” I would inform them confidently, and ever so slightly condescendingly. When my parents began to worry that I might be laughed at at school, they decided to break the news to me. I remember the moment vividly, and how it rocked my world and everything that I held as certain.  However, I do not regret for one moment ever having believed. My childhood was magical and wonderful because of it. When else in life can you have the opportunity, and innocence, to believe that a kindly old gentleman of indeterminate age gives all children around the world the very gift they had been wanting? When else can you believe that maybe, just maybe, if you concentrate enough, your magic will change the channel on the TV, or (as my daughter believes) change the colour of Daddy’s boxer shorts. It’s a world of possibilities and wonder, of children’s stories so vividly exciting just because you believe they might be true. It’s the birth of imagination.

Science, logic, observation and enquiry are essential to our minds, and to answering important questions about the world around us and our place in it. I firmly believe that feeding and satisfying children’s natural scientific curiosity is essential. But imagination also has a very important place. We need it in order to come up with innovative ideas and new concepts. But, most importantly, we need it because it’s fun. Believing in fairies and pixies and pots of gold are all part of developing that imagination, as well as creating some magical memories.

My son has a naturally scientific mind. He is very logical already at six years old. He questions my “magical” answers very closely. He has already asked me outright whether Father Christmas is real. I feel a little guilty, but I just told him a bare-faced lie, because I couldn’t imagine having a six-year-old who didn’t believe in magic.  He will have his whole life to believe in science and the laws of physics, but the time to believe in magic is so precious and short, I’ve kept it going a little longer. So for now, while most reindeer are ground-dwelling even-hoofed herbivores, Father Christmas’s reindeer fly using special Christmas magic.