Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mind in the Making

(cross posted at My168Hours)

Over the past few days I (and apparently a host of other folks) have been reading Ellen Galinsky's book, Mind in the Making. Galinsky is the head of the Families and Work Institute, and is known for her research into both how modern workers combine work and family, and how kids perceive all this. A fascinating study she did several years ago, called Ask the Children, studied what kids wanted from their parents. Keep in mind that this was in the heat of the Mommy Wars narrative, and so many people assumed that the answer would be something like "more time." Nah. It was for parents to be less stressed. Which makes sense. I'd rather have a happy mommy for three hours a day than an unhappy mommy for more.

But anyway, Galinsky followed that impulse to study the modern economy through the lens of children a ways farther down the path with Mind in the Making. In it, she argues that there are 7 life skills that will be critical in the workplace today's children will ultimately enter. These include (1) focus and self control; (2) perspective taking; (3) communicating; (4) making connections; (5) critical thinking; (6) taking on challenges; and (7) self-directed, engaged learning.

For each of these skills, Galinsky suggests games and techniques that will help parents build these skills, based on academic research done by various programs in child development around the country. By sheer volume, this makes Mind in the Making useful for just about any parent. You are guaranteed to pick up something that you'll think is a good idea. For instance, as I've been cranking through, I remembered that watching TV is generally a bad idea for kids, which is what gave me the fortitude during a patch of single parenting this week to keep the set off. I was reminded that blocks help build geometric competence, so Jasper and Sam and I played with them for a while last night. I had Jasper "read" me his stories so he could make connections between pictures and ideas (and work on communication skills). I let him struggle up the chain-link ladder on the playground by himself. I asked him questions like "why do you think Sam is crying?" ("He wants to feed!" -- ok, that was an easy one. But he's still learning perspective taking!)

She makes good arguments that kids do not learn how to write, adequately, with an eye toward getting ideas across (and of course I love the suggestion of having kids write their favorite author!) She also describes the silliness of our widespread math phobia. "Traditionally, parents in the US have viewed mathematics learning as a kind of talent or ability that some people had and some people didn't have," she writes, but this is just not an option for the jobs that will exist 15 years from now. Math is like walking. Yes, some people simply can't do it, but the vast majority of us can and it is just as serviceable to get around in the world.

Of course, since children's brain development is a small (if growing) field, she winds up citing many of the same researchers (like Alison Gopnik) again and again, to the point where I started thinking they should be bummed about not getting cover credit. Galinsky also has the misfortune to have her book come out 7 months after Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's NurtureShock. I believe they were written simultaneously, but they plow much of the same ground (especially on the topics of self-regulation and Carol Dweck's work on praising children for effort rather than ability), so people who read NurtureShock may find much of this familiar.

The premise of the book -- that these are the skills kids need in the future, so here's what parents should do to nurture them -- is also a little thin for larger socioeconomic reasons. Well-educated parents already do much of what she suggests, and their kids are probably going to do well in the global economy anyway. It's the at-risk kids who most need the help. But if you have the kind of parent who studies a book on children's brain development with an eye toward implementing the findings, you are by definition not at risk. So hopefully the preschool and daycare teachers serving such kids will also pick up the book.

Nonetheless, Mind in the Making offers a lot to mull over, and I think parents of gifted kids in particular will enjoy Galinsky's lauding of "lemonade stands" -- which she uses as a metaphor for a project or topic that a child, on her own, becomes passionate about. Toward the end of chapter 7, she shares a story from a parent of a 3.5-year-old girl who is absolutely obsessed with bugs. Finding a spider at a friend's house, she spends the whole meal under the table talking with her new friend. She has similar obsessions, in turn, with dinosaurs and volcanoes (they name a fish Hot Magma).

"I enjoy all of this because I can feel like a kid again," the parent says, "learning about this giant, amazing world as if for the first time. I hope she always stays this curious, this questioning. I hope she has teachers who act graciously toward her and her thirst for learning. Above all, I hope she never stops seeing this world as an incredible place."

I think most of us hope we can say the same for our children.

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