Saturday 24 March 2018

Fact or fiction? Postive parenting

As parents we’re frequently bombarded with ways of making our children smarter or influencing their lives positively. But which ones are hokum and which have some truth attached? Niamh Morrin finds out

'Learning to play music can boost intelligence, but this has to do with the ordinary hard work and focus required to master an instrument, rather than any magical effect'
'Learning to play music can boost intelligence, but this has to do with the ordinary hard work and focus required to master an instrument, rather than any magical effect'

Niamh Morrin

Nowadays, the pressure to be perfect parents begins in the womb.

In between planning the optimal ante-natal diet and designing the perfect birth plan (which will be ripped to shreds while screaming for the epidural), expectant mothers are also supposed to play Mozart to their unborn child.

The so-called ‘Mozart effect’ is a wonderful example of how urban legends are born and flourish, transforming fiction into fact. There was a real experiment done in 1993, where researcher Frances Rauscher found a connection between higher intelligence scores after listening to Mozart. Not surprisingly, compared to the tedium of teaching kids their ABCs, this easy method of intelligence boosting held huge appeal. The fact that no studies had been done with babies didn’t prevent 40pc of the media from asserting the Mozart benefits.

The truth is far less exciting: any intelligence boost experienced was temporary and subsequent experiments attributed this minor improvement to increased feelings of happiness inspired by the music, rather than the music itself. As with many ‘sounds too good to be true’ myths, there is a grain of truth, because learning to play music can boost intelligence, but this has to do with the ordinary hard work and focus required to master an instrument, rather than any magical effect. So, you can throw away the Mozart CD, get out the saucepans and wooden spoon, and let little Johnny bang away to his heart’s content!

Better still, change his name from Johnny to Aaron because while the ‘Mozart Effect’ is a myth, ‘alphabetical discrimination’ has been proven to exist.

In his book Quirkology, Professor Richard Wiseman discovered that there were an unusually high number of people called Florence living in Florida, George in Georgia, and Virgil in Virginia. Peoples’ political preferences also seem to be influenced by the alphabet; people with surnames beginning with ‘B’ were more likely to donate to the Bush campaign, while those beginning with ‘G’ donated to the Gore campaign.

The alphabet effect is thought to have emerged because people with names at the beginning of the alphabet are used to coming first, and we associate the letters ‘A’ and ‘B’ with academic success. New research done by Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons in 2007 showed that students with surnames beginning with the letters A or B did significantly better academically than those whose names began with C and D. Their research was further supported by a review of the American Bar Association where the A/B candidates tended to go to better law schools.

Whatever about first and last names, it is imperative that your child’s initials don’t spell ASS, FAT or PIG, as a huge analysis of Californian death certificates revealed that those with negative initials died about three years earlier than those with positive initials such as GOD, JOY, or FAB.

There are other ways to help your child realise his or her potential. To start, ignore all the touchy-feely advice endorsed by the self-help gurus and be very wary of praise. In some ways, we’re incredibly simple creatures (attributing A qualities to a person whose name begins with A), but we can be downright contrary when it comes to something as seemingly straightforward as praise. Surely telling someone they are great and talented will help them feel even greater and more talented? Research shows that it’s actually the reverse.

In experiments the children who had received praise opted out of attempting more difficult puzzles, choosing easier ones instead. They also reported less enjoyment when doing the difficult puzzles and were less likely to practice them at home. The most compelling anti-praise argument has to be the fact that the children in the praised group scored lower than the other groups in final tests.

It seems praise is counterproductive because it sets children up to fear failure, and thus avoid more challenging tasks. The feedback that they are very bright gives children the impression that they don’t have to work hard to achieve. If they do poorly, the presumption is that it was not their fault and there is nothing they can do about it. These kids were also 40pc more likely to lie about their results, which begs the obvious question – were all our politicians praised way too much as kids?

Praise is an effective reinforcer but the type of praise is crucial. The golden rule is ‘praise the effort not the outcome’. It seems that praising our innate talents can have a dreadful effect on our motivation, as it encourages us to fear failure, while praising the effort gives us a sense of control, inspiring us to stick with it and work harder.

In summary, Mozart is out, and saucepan lids are in. Peter and Josephine need to be immediately replaced by Aaron and Abigail. And the next time you’re tempted to praise your child’s brilliant mind, amazing left foot or X-Factor voice, just remember – '79ou could just be creating a future politician!

Niamh Morrin is a senior occupational therapist, a qualified life and business coach and an advanced EFT practitioner

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