When I’m in schools talking to kids about resilience and learning through failure, I usually begin with a quick survey. First, I ask teachers and staff in the auditorium to close their eyes. I then ask the students to raise their hands if they get paid cash money for good grades. Depending on the socio-economic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 percent of hands go up.
Sometimes it takes a while, hands creeping up slowly, hesitantly, for kids seem to intuit that getting paid for grades may not be the best approach to learning. I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any material thing in exchange for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny enticement. In response, about 20 to 25 percent of the hands go up. The noise in the auditorium tends to amp up with each new question as students begin to compare notes. When the clamor dies down, I remind the staff of the rules: eyes closed, no peeking. And I warn the students that this last question is a little harder to answer, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an honest answer before they respond.
“Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”
Over the past five years, I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 percent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is a little higher — about 90 percent.
After the poll is over, we debrief, and I reassure them that for the most part, their perceptions are incorrect, that they are loved no matter what, but parenting is hard, and we parents often need a moment to come up with the right response to an unexpectedly low grade. Sure, we are disappointed, but that silence they encounter when they bring home a report card littered with B-minuses (B-minus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less. I promise, we’re just pausing to find the best, most appropriate words to support their hearts, their minds and their intellectual growth.
I’m a parent, however, and I understand the truth behind that pause, even if I don’t want to admit it. That silence in response to a low grade? That’s withdrawal of love based on performance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.
Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, calls it “outcome love,” a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.
Outcome love impedes children’s happiness as well as their success in life because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions. Taylor elaborated in an email, “If parents send frequent messages of love, happiness, and excitement when their children are successful and frequent messages of withdrawal of love or anger, frustration, and disappointment when their children fail to live up to their parents’ expectations, the kids will make that connection.”
Messages of outcome love don’t just shape kids’ short-term happiness, either. They can have a long-term deleterious effect on mental health, one that endures well beyond adolescence.
“Sadly, these messages fuel mental health problems including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, not to mention the reactions of resentment, anger, and rejection from the children toward the parents. Even more painfully, this attitude of outcome love becomes internalized and children grow up to be adults who berate themselves for failure and only give self-love when they succeed,” Taylor said in the email.
Furthermore, when love is offered in exchange for performance, it becomes a reward to be earned, and the data on extrinsic rewards and their effect on motivation are clear: If we want kids to be invested in any activity — school, athletics, household duties, learning a musical instrument — the fastest way to undermine that motivation is to offer material or emotional rewards.
Of course we are proud of our children’s successes and disappointed in their failures — we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feedback on our parenting, so lacking our own report cards or trophies, it’s tempting to use our children’s success as immediate and reassuring evidence of our parenting success. However, claiming our children’s successes or failures as our own cheats them out of their experiences, devalues their learning, and teaches them that our love for them is conditional.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to avoid outcome love. When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of points, grades and scores, we communicate in terms louder than words that we love our children unequivocally and without reservation.
Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for example, focus discussion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they prepare for the assessment or project? What might they do differently next time? What was successful, and what do they need to change? Did they get enough sleep the night before the test or did they stay up for “just one more hour” to review? Did they speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not?
This focus on process over product is particularly helpful for highly anxious or perfectionist kids who tend to get derailed by their intense focus on outcomes. When these kids obsess over an end product, on why their grade was a 90 instead of a 100, for example, it’s essential to steer the discussion back to the learning, back to the ongoing, lifelong process of becoming a more effective, efficient and invested learner.
We can’t always excise all traces of judgment, joy or anger from our responses to our children’s triumphs and tragedies, nor should we. However, if we want our children to truly believe us when we say our love is constant and unconditional, that we value learning more than a number printed in red at the top of a test, we are going to have to put our money (and our unconditional love) where our mouths are.
Jessica Lahey is a teacher and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a forthcoming book on preventing addiction in children.