The Importance of Recognizing Childhood Successes at School
Over many years of private practice I have heard both adults and teenagers tell me all the ways in which parents failed to recognize their achievements and successes in school. By the way, all of these patients were seeing me for depression. Some parents emphasized academic success in reading, writing, math and science as the measure of being a good student. The problem was that many of these people were talented artists or musicians. Yet, their parents devalued those areas as second rate or unimportant.
A study was completed at the University of Missouri and published in The Journal of Counseling Psychology under the title, "Low Academic Competence in First Grade as a Risk Factor for Depressive Cognitions and Symptoms in Middle School." The study demonstrated the fact that youngsters who had difficulty with reading and math showed negative self evaluations in sixth grade and depression in seventh and eighth grades. These findings held true even for youngsters who were given academic help to overcome their weaknesses.
The researchers acknowledge that there are always differences between children in academic ability and talent. However, the key factor in building a sense of skillfulness and ability in young people is by having parents and teachers be supportive in those areas where they are capable.
A good example is of an artist I recently met who failed in school because he had a previously undiagnosed case of ADHD. However, his art was inspiring and, in that pursuit, he was able to make a living. Nevertheless, it was extremely difficult for him to let go of the self perception of being a failure and a pretender at being successful.
A brilliant artist who was referred to me many years ago for symptoms of severe depression was constantly told by his parents when he was a teenager that his pursuit of art was a complete waste of time. In fact, they disparaged artistic pursuits of any kind and insisted that he get a job. I was stunned when he brought some of his smaller works of art for me to see. This was a gifted man who made a very good living at what he did. Yet, when he brought his sample and his portfolio of art to the office he was filled with trepidation that I would confirm his parents estimation of him and his work.
We know that some parents err in the opposite way by rewarding everything a child does, regardless of its quality. The message is that "everything you do is wonderful." This type of thing is also damaging because it is not reality, and also fails to recognize real areas of strength.
There are many areas besides the arts where children my excel: sports activities and there are many types from baseball to the martial arts and ice skating, speaking, music composition, being really good at social organization and leading, computer skills, and etc.
As parents and teachers it is important to support and encourage those areas where our children do well, academic or otherwise and to provide extra help and support in those areas where they are struggling.
Your comments are welcome and encouraged.
Dr. Allan N. Schwartz, PhD