I’ve been thinking lately about one lesson I learned through parenting a child with behavioral and learning differences. When you parent a child who falls somewhere within that wide field we call “typical,” lots of traditional parenting methods with incentives and consequences might work well enough. But it’s not until we have a child who falls far from the center of the field that we might discover the value of parenting—and teaching—to the positive.
I was most recently reminded of this when my daughter spent a week at her favorite summer camp, Santa Cruz Soccer Camp. The first time I brought her to camp, I was very nervous. I explained that there were various behavioral challenges and that I was willing to stay and help. Coach Bill, without hesitation, asked if she was liable to run off.
“Fine, then,” he said. “We can handle anything else. Go get some time for yourself.”
And that was the end of the idea that I might have to stay and supervise her at soccer camp. The reason Bill was so sure of his camp’s ability to handle my child was simply that they don’t focus on the problems—they focus on success. They call their approach “learning through enjoyment,” but it’s a variation on lots of approaches with different names that stem from one simple idea: kids learn when they enjoy something and are successful at it, not when they are set up to fail and are punished. Lots of kids have learned deep lessons from soccer, drama, writing, and science—I am willing to bet that few have learned from detention.
Kids learn when they feel a reason for learning: they’re having fun, they’re benefiting personally from what they’re doing, or even when they see that someone else is benefiting from what they’re doing. Kids do learn from failure, but only when it’s in the context of a challenge that makes sense to them. Kids don’t learn when they’re scared—or rather, they don’t learn the lesson we think they’ve learned. A student who is afraid of failing history doesn’t learn history because he’s afraid, but he may well learn how to search for plagiarized history papers online. A child who is afraid her parent will punish her if she’s rude doesn’t learn the value of being polite—she learns how to avoid punishment.
Now that my daughter is eleven, one of the things I’m looking forward to in the near future is leadership training at her soccer camp. This year when Bill asked all the coaches who had been through leadership training to step forward, all but one did (and the one who didn’t just simply didn’t grow up in Santa Cruz!). These wonderful people who spend their summers teaching soccer and success to kids are now adults or almost adults, and many of them started in this very camp when they were five or six. Leadership taught them the value of success, not just for themselves but the value of helping others achieve success.
I looked at a number of potential schools for my daughter to attend next year, and one thing that struck me now that I have this awareness of the value of success is how the staff view their jobs. At one school I visited, the staff—from principal on down—talked somewhat like jailers. They focused on the negative aspects of young teens, talked about all the problems that our kids would face, and warned us that our sweet children were about to turn into sullen, uncommunicative teens.
Guess where my daughter is not going?
Now that she’s a tween, she’s gotten past being a “troublemaker” in the classroom. I don’t expect her to have disciplinary problems, so why would I care how the staff treats these problems? The reason is that how we view the people we work with—whether they’re preschoolers or high schoolers—will affect their achievements. Schools with cultures that focus on success will find that they have fewer problems to begin with. They will find that when you focus on students’ positive qualities, those positive qualities will shine brighter. The students’ problems—their negative qualities—will not disappear, but they won’t be always in the spotlight.
Of course, no approach is 100% successful, so sure, you’ll be able to show me students who didn’t succeed in spite of a focus on the positive. But I’ve seen it with so many children—and the people at soccer camp can vouch for the approach with even more authority. Focusing on a student’s strengths and making sure they’re having fun while they’re working hard is a time-tested recipe for success.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I sure do wish there were some way to have summer camp all year round!