Give your Child a Leg Up



Parents these days, it seems, are all looking for that something special to help either separate their kids from the pack at school, or help them to become their best. But with all of the products and practices out there making fabulous claims, how do you separate the boon from the bunk? Although science and technology have a lot to contribute to modern childrearing best practices, before you go running out to buy the latest gizmo or buy in to some new paradigm, you may want to consider first what your child really needs to succeed, and then look for solutions that have been tried and tested over the long haul.

Predicting Success
Every parent wants their child to have the best, but deep down we all know that success is an inside job. Ultimately it will be up to our kids to make themselves successful, but what does it take for them to make it in today’s world? Experts and scientists have been looking at child and adult behaviours in longitudinal studies for decades now and have come up with a few key virtues that are excellent predictors of future success. Here is what the experts have to say.

Patience is a Virtue!
By now most of you will have heard of Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow test,” but for those who haven’t here is the skinny: Mischel began his test in the 1960’s at Stanford University as a study of willpower where he gave 500 4-year-old children two options: Once he left the room, they could eat one marshmallow right away, or they could wait until he returned 15 minutes later and receive two. Subsequent follow up studies over the next forty years showed startling correlations between a subjects ability to control impulsive behaviour, and use of effective coping strategies to tolerate discomfort and strategically allocate their attention, and everything from the achievement of higher SAT scores as well as better social cognitive and emotional coping skills as teenagers, to higher levels of academic achievement, lower body mass index and lower rates of drug abuse, divorce, and separation as adults. So it seems that to those who can wait, good things will come, but is patience enough?

Self-Regulation is the New Discipline
I’m not sure when exactly discipline became a dirty word, but while it’s tag might have lost its luster, its effects continue to shine. A recent study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly indicates that a child’s ability to a) pay attention, b) be persistent, and c) remember instructions, were better predictors of college completion than were either reading or math scores at age seven. The studies author, Megan McClelland, suggests that teaching your child the fundamentals of sitting still, paying attention, and persisting when things are tough are more important that fixating on reading and math because the former is fundamental in the development of the latter. Additionally the results from her study suggest what we all know to be true; that it takes a lot more than reading and math skills to succeed. So does this mean that if our little free spirit scores low in patience, attention, persistence and focusing they are doomed, or can parents tamper with fates evidently not so fickle finger?

There is Hope
The short answer is yes, these skills are malleable and teachable, and there is enough science out there regarding the continued plasticity of the aging mind and body to suggest that there is no age related sweet spot for attaining them. Mallory suggests that engaging your child in fun activities which stress listening, observing, emulating, and focusing skills, and which offer a challenge to both ones ability to stay on task as well as overcome some difficulty, they can build their self regulatory muscles.

For example, in a 1975 study, Mischel found that by teaching children to mentally reframe the reward, such as by seeing the marshmallow as a puffy cloud as opposed to a yummy or chewy delight, children were able to almost triple their wait times. Whether you call this self-control, a mental trick, or a useful tool, what this study shows is that given the right tools a childs ability to successfully delay gratification is less a matter of stoic self discipline than it is a matter of their having the strategies they need to cope with the stress of waiting. So where can a parent find such tools?

Can I Buy a Success Tool Kit?

There may be no happier person in the world than an entrepreneur with a new ‘educational toy’ ready for the market. Parents seem willing to spend endlessly to pound their kids with everything from Mozart in the womb to brainy baby videos after birth in the hopes of producing perfecting progeny, but is this time and money well spent?

Knowledge acquired from over almost 20 years of research has effectively proved Don Campbell’s “Mozart Effect,” the idea that playing selected pieces to infants will boost their mental development, to be a myth. We all know intuitively that music has a profound impact on our bodies, brains and emotions, but it does not make us smarter. A study a few years ago at Tel Aviv University showed that preemies who were exposed to Mozart for a minimum period of 30 minutes once a day were calmer and less agitated thereby expending less energy and needing fewer calories to grow more rapidly, but similar results were found from an eclectic variety of music as well. So although Mozart does make a difference, it does not boost cognitive abilities as Campbell claimed. If music is out then, can parents look to videos for help?

Early development video products are big business, but do they make your child smarter or increase language skills? A 2007 study led by Frederick Zimmerman and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, both at the University of Washington, concluded that Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos not only failed to make kids smarter they actually had the opposite effect. Research showed that for every hour spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new words than babies who never watched the videos.

Watching the videos stimulates the brain but stimulation does not equal learning. In fact overstimulation creates real problems in learning as the rapidly moving images on videos, TV or video games makes real life seem boring, making focusing a challenge. So what is left then for parents who would like to make a positive difference? The answer is simpler, and cheaper than you think.

The Big Secret is that there is No Big Secret

As adults we know that when it comes to being successful, the most important person involved in the job is the individual themselves. It’s the same deal for our children, ultimately they will be about as successful and happy as they make their minds up to be, but parents have many opportunities to help guide the process so that the right tools are developed.

Examples of activities that parents can use to develop their child’s tool kit would be activities that reinforce patience, focus, attention to details, and dealing with challenge. Activities like doing a puzzle, reading books together, and playing board games, basically interacting with your child the old fashioned way, go a long way toward both building their skills and your relationship. Doing physical activities like sports, either with them or enrolling them on a team or in lessons also provides a great outlet for many kids. They all have rules to follow and challenges to face, but not all sports are created equal.

While all sports will have some benefit, whether it is teaching kids the value of exercise, teamwork or sportsmanship, when it comes to developing the identified qualities of success, there is one physical activity that I have found to stand far above the rest: martial arts. With roots that go back thousands of years, Karate at its core is an individual activity that is about self mastery, which is essentially self regulation. Karate practice involves memorization and concentration, building physical literacy and body awareness, as well patience and self control through the learning of basic movements, forms, as well as some handy self defense skills. Well instructed, karate calms the exuberant, excites the mild, and fortifies all. Successful karate programs emphasize the development of awareness, self control and an indomitable spirit; everything that is essential to success. Combine those skills with a great work ethic, fantastic attitude as well as great physical exercise and you have what many parents have come to consider the ultimate activity.

While there are always new products or paradigms that parents can try to help their children to be their best, there may be nothing more effective than the tried, tested and true. New gadgets, fads, and gizmos with fantastic claims may be attractive, but their marketability may be more substantial than their benefits. Science has affirmed for us what many parents have known intuitively all along: that making the time to engage with our children in low-tech character shaping activities or encouraging them to be involved in character building athletic activities will help them to build the skills they need to succeed in the real world. The rest will be up to them.

About the Author:
Richard Verlaan is a martial arts instructor, writer, husband and father of two based in Toronto, Ontario. For over 22 years he has been coaching adults, kids and parents to be their best through the attitude, philosophy and physical training involved in martial arts. Annually he teaches well over 5000 students through his own school as well as through workshops and seminars at TDSB, TCDSB, and private schools.  Know as an engaging teacher, he is also works with adults at his studio as well as in his work in corporate training, life skills, and executive coaching. His studio website is www.yorkama.com. He can be reached by e-mail at strongyou@yorkama.com.

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