We congratulate kindergartners when they line up neatly, pat second-graders on the head when they color between the lines, scold fourth-graders when they ring the doorbell twice to see what happens.
All of these parenting moves make perfect sense, says an Omaha expert on child development. And each one of these moves, when drummed into our kids’ heads, can produce adults ill-equipped for the new American economy.
“We love disruptive innovators,” says Dr. Laura Jana. “We don’t love them when they are 4.”
Jana watches how we raise our children from one of Omaha’s most fascinating vantage points.
She’s a pediatrician. She’s the one-time sidekick of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famed child-rearing expert.
She’s a parenting book author with a new book coming out soon. She’s a early childhood education expert who ran a large and successful Omaha preschool. She’s plugged into Silicon Valley via a twin sister who may be the most-connected woman in the world of tech startups.
And, maybe most importantly, Dr. Laura Jana is a mother of three who reads both the Harvard Business Review and “Parenting for Dummies.”
“If I crossed out some words you wouldn’t know the difference between a parenting book and a business book,” she tells me during a two-hour conversation so wide-ranging and rapid-fire that I walked away from it both exhausted and exhilarated. “But when people are trying to do the right thing in business ... they do strategic planning. That’s what we don’t do in parenting.”
The big question: How do we teach American parents and teachers to reject many status quo practices that don’t actually help children get ready for 21st century adulthood?
We do a bunch of stuff correctly, Jana says, much of it so basic that it almost seems baked into parents’ DNA.
When you coo at a infant, and he or she coos back, you are developing that child’s ability to speak. When your infant smiles at you, and you smile back, and he or she smiles again, you have just used positive reinforcement to develop both your infant’s brain and his or her social skills.
But we also do some things very wrong, Jana thinks.
We push creativity aside in favor of discipline.
Think of the simple question, “Why?” CEOs and business experts routinely say in surveys that creativity and questioning are among the most important traits they look for in an employee.
But kids who ask a lot of questions are often shushed.
We discourage repeated questioning, just as we discipline the kid who wants to go up the down slide and the kid who wants to go around the revolving door at the department store more than once.
If out-of-the-box thinking is so revered in adulthood, why is it so discouraged in childhood?
“My concern is we’re training the ‘Why?’ out of our kids,” she says.
Jana isn’t saying we should get rid of discipline altogether. Every child needs structure, and an anarchic child will most likely grow into an adult who can’t function in society.
What she’s saying is, after we set the parameters for children, we need to be more willing to let them try, experiment, adapt, try again.
To illustrate, Jana brings up the Marshmallow Challenge, made famous by a designer and writer named Tom Wujec.
Here’s the challenge: In a team of four, build the tallest possible structure in 18 minutes using 20 uncooked spaghetti noodles, one yard of tape and one yard of string. When constructed, your structure must be able to hold a marshmallow you place atop it without crashing to the ground.
Wujec has administered this challenge for years and tallied the results.
So what group of people does worse than any other group? Recent business school graduates.
And what group of people does better at the challenge than almost any other group? Recent kindergarten graduates.
That’s right. Six-year-olds consistently beat every group of adults except for architects and engineers.
Why? Because they don’t conform to adult group behavior, which practically mandates that you talk for a while, brainstorm, build a structure and then, with the clock ticking, panic and throw your marshmallow on at the very end. (Many towers built this way crumble.)
Instead, 6-year-olds tend to put the marshmallow on at the beginning, build their structure, put their marshmallow on again, rebuild and on and on until they have a nice tower by the deadline.
This challenge has rules, Jana says. And it also has a lesson for the way we educate the intelligence right out of children.
“We indoctrinate kids to stop trying different things,” she says. “We train it out of them.”
We also need to be willing to let our children fall, Jana says, so they learn how to dust themselves and get back up.
Showing an ability to fail, and learn from it, is a prized asset in Silicon Valley. Google, for example, attaches more significance to a job application question about failure than it does to your grade-point average.
And learning from failure is tied closely to the idea of becoming intrinsically motivated, a person willing to try, fail, and find creative solutions to problems because that’s what they like to do, not because they might be named Employee of the Month.
So, no, children shouldn’t pick up trash along their street because they are getting paid by their parents, Jana says. They should pick up trash outside because the activity has been made interactive and interesting — a game, if you will — and because when they get done, they feel a sense of accomplishment and a connection to their neighborhood that they didn’t feel before.
Jana brings up MRI studies that show a developing brain lighting up with emotional responses when a child does something nice for someone else.
“Doing things for others, and not getting a reward for it, are the roots of generosity and caring we can see in 7-month-olds,” she says.
That intrinsic motivation will serve that child well when he or she is an adult and the going gets tough at work or at home, Jana thinks.
We do a good job of measuring what is easily measurable: IQ scores. ACT scores. But we do a horrible job of understanding how much — or more likely, how little — those numbers are actually tied to future success.
“We’re racing to understand how to measure grit, how to measure resilience, how to measure creativity,” Jana says. “The established education system doesn’t do well with these sort of measure shifts ... but go ask at Google. They will tell you this stuff is more important than any degree or any SAT score.”
What happens too often is that parents are too focused on the next minute, the next hour, the next day, Jana says. She completely understands: She’s lived through the sleep-deprived nights and the movie-free years of raising three young children while working full time.
But she also says that short-term thinking in parenting, while somewhat unavoidable, is damaging if it’s never paired with more long-term approaches.
We risk becoming the parental equivalent of a company CEO who is concerned only about the next quarter’s earnings instead of the company’s health a year from now, or five years, or 20.
“It makes really good sense why we are doing all of it,” says Jana. “Here’s the thing, though: We pay the price later. We do.”