Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Try, try again

Recently, I posted this:

[...] it depicted Snoopy, the dog from the Peanuts comic strip, attempting to fly off the roof of his dog house using oak leaves as wings. And it said, “Never say you can’t until you try.”

It seemed to me that the message lacked some sense of ensuring that one’s goals be reasonable, feasible, physically possible. I mean, do we really want kindergarten kids thinking that they should try to fly using oak leaves, before deciding that they can’t?

I’ve since gotten a couple of private comments from friends, saying that the poster in question is just using a silly image to make a point; that kids should be encouraged to reach for the stars; that they shouldn’t limit themselves to what they already know is possible, but strive for the unimaginable.

Yeah, I get that, and I agree, but that’s not the problem I have with the poster. Maggie gets it; as she says in her comment:

I hate this idea that you can do anything if you try hard enough. It’s nonsense. Maybe it’s just much harder to put "assess your ability and resources and realistically set goals" on a poster. I’d say it ties in with the stupid "self-esteem" movement, but I think it predates the self-esteem movement, and they’re both crap.
Tout à fait.

It’s not a question of pushing oneself, reaching for high goals, trying for things you’re not sure you can do. But it is a question of being realistic. “I’m going to win a Nobel prize!” is an achievable goal, if an unlikely one. So are “I’m going to be President of the United States,” “I’m going to be the biggest movie star of the 21st century,” and “I’m going to be worth a billion dollars by the time I’m 30.” They are achievable. That said, if those are the goals you set, you’re almost certain to be disappointed.

And if you want to be President and you were born in Canada, or you want the Nobel prize but the only things you’re good at are in the arts, you’re just setting yourself up for that disappointment — you’re trying to fly using oak leaves.

People — kids, especially — need to set goals that will challenge them, while keeping in mind what’ll keep them moving toward those goals. Realistic intermediate goals are stepping stones toward those big ones and are critical in meeting the challenges. If the big goal is to get a Nobel prize, there have to be smaller goals that involve doing well in, say, biology, getting into a good university that will foster your research work, and that sort of thing.

And along with setting realistic goals goes making realistic evaluations of your progress. We have to teach kids to recognize when they’re failing, and that failure at one thing is not a disaster. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when one is being held back by a weakness, sometimes the answer is not to keep fighting it, but to shift focus to an area of strength.

By all means, reach for the stars. Just start by working on getting to the moon, and then go on from there.


Dr. Momentum said...

Something else missing from he equation: goals also come with sacrifices.

I will likely never be a billionaire. Realistic? No. Impossible? No -- not if I am willing to do what it takes. But, in truth, I am not willing to sacrifice things I value to seek riches.

It's important to have goals and understand that you will need to sacrifice to achieve those goals. Part of that is understanding what you value.

Part of being mature is understanding that life offers these tradeoffs. Is it too soon for kids to learn this? I'm not sure. I think that the sooner you learn about smart sacrifices, the sooner you take control of your success.

It's not something I learned early, because there is not a lot of help out there for understanding the tradeoffs inherent in life.

Maggie said...

I think it's hard for us to understand trade-offs. When I was young, I had this vague idea that money was infinite, i.e., I could buy a couch now and more money would be coming next month, so it didn't matter. I know that sounds incredibly stupid, but I don't think I thought that there was a finite amount I could earn in my lifetime, and purchasing a couch now would ultimately have an effect in the future. (I tend not to spend very much money anyway, so it isn't like I was buying everything I want, and buying the most expensive things -- we still have those original couches, 17 years later.)

Everything is finite -- the amount of time we can spend with our children and each other and our friends, the amount of energy we have after work to do projects, etc. I think it's hard to forecast what toll the trade-offs might take in the future. Money's an obvious and easily quantifiable item, but time, energy, and personal relationships aren't. I think this knowledge comes with experience, sometimes too late.

Also, I really wonder what children need to be taught. Their ideas about having achieved a goal are different from ours. I distinctly remember a little boy I met in Epcot center once telling me he spoke six languages or something, and he actually could speak one word in each of those languages. Then you get the occasional super-achieving kid, the one who can do something that's an adult skill and of actual value to the world. I'm not sure where most children fall in that continuum, not only of ability, but of understanding what it means to achieve.

I would say a nine or ten year old begins to understand these ideas.

I recently read, about bullying, that part of the self-esteem movement was based on this idea that bullies have low self-esteem. (And what baloney that is.) I read this in one of K's magazines. (Muse, I think.) Children don't need this hollow self-esteem. It does nothing for them except make them think that they're achieving when they're not! For example, students overestimated their math ability. Just what we need.

Something that I would have appreciated was knowing where to go to learn something. I see people with skills, for example business skills, and it is only recently that I'm realizing these skills can be learned. I feel very empowered by the knowledge. At least I know what it is I would need to know to start a business now, whereas before it was an area that seemed unknowable to me. I assumed it was an ability I simply lacked.

If we can teach our children that they don't know everything, but that they can set a goal and learn how to attain it, and teach them how to evaluate their progress along the way, that would be a real achievement.

Oh, dear, I keep going -- I think if I had been taught that librarians were great resources for finding knowledge instead of being drilled on the Dewey decimal system, how to be silent, and how not to mess up the shelves, then maybe that would've been a start. In K's middle school, the librarian hands out this sheet of rules that she makes the kids copy the first day of library class! Why would anyone ever want to go there? One of the "rules" they must copy is that "Mrs. X is a paid professional, not a parent volunteer." Way to garner respect.

nina said...

Now, I was just going to tease you about the fact that you felt the need to explain to us who Snoopy is.