The Myth of the Supertrait Ⅳ- Woodmam

The lesson of Jeffrey Froh’s work is not that society should simply give up on teaching children about gratitude. Certainly, some children do benefit from the exercises. (In fact, Froh remains so committed to the idea that one of his grad students recently began pilot-testing a five-week gratitude school curriculum.) However, for most kids, gratitude is not easily manufactured, and we can’t take it for granted that gratitude should supersede other psychological needs just because we want it to.

The real value in Froh’s story, however, isn’t limited to his insight on gratitude. We’re including it here because we think that his entire process is also illustrative of a much larger point.

When we looked back at all the enormity of research that this book was built on, an interesting pattern was apparent. Most of the noteworthy insights into child development were revealed when scholars dropped the same two assumptions as Froh had.

Or, to restate that with more emphasis: a treasure trove of wisdom about children is there for the grasping after one lets go of those two common assumptions.

The first assumption is that things work in children in the same way that they work in adults. To put a name to this reference bias, let’s call it the Fallacy of Similar Effect.

In chapter after chapter of this book, great insights were gained when scholars set that assumption aside. Consider the research into sleep. It was, for a long time, all too convenient to assume kids are affected by sleep loss the same way as adults—it’s tiring but manageable. But when scholars decided to test that, they found that the magnitude of effect on kids was exponentially damaging.

In the same way, we presumed that because measured intelligence is stable in adults, it’s also stable in young children. It’s not—it plateaus and spurts. And because adults can pick up the implicit message of multiculturally diverse environments, we assumed kids can, too. They can’t—they need to hear explicit statements about how wrong it is to judge people for their skin color.

Here’s yet another example of this fallacy in operation. In our chapter about Tools of the Mind, we described how pretend play is the way young kids master symbolic representation, which soon becomes necessary for all academic coursework. But this crucial point never comes up when society debates the purpose of kids’ free time, or the necessity of school recess. Instead, the arguments are always about exercise and social skills. That’s because for adults, playtime is a chance to blow off steam and relax with friends. While those are certainly relevant to children too, our adult frame of reference has caused us to overlook a crucial purpose of play.

The Fallacy of Similar Effect also helps explain why society got it wrong on praising children. In a variety of studies, praise has been shown to be effective on adults in workplaces. Grownups like being praised. While praise can undermine a child’s intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t have this affect on adults. It has the opposite effect: being praised by managers increases an adult’s intrinsic motivation, especially in white-collar professional settings. (Only in a few circumstances, such as some blue-collar union workplaces, is praise interpreted as untrustworthy and manipulative.) It’s because we like praise so much that we intuited lavishing it upon kids would be beneficial.

The second assumption to drop, as illustrated in Froh’s story, is that positive traits necessarily oppose and ward off negative behavior in children. To name this bias, let’s call it the Fallacy of the Good/Bad Dichotomy.

The tendency to categorize things as either good for children or bad for children pervades our society. We tend to think that good behavior, positive emotions, and good outcomes are a package deal: together, the good things will protect a child from all the bad behaviors and negative emotions, such as stealing, feeling bored or distressed, excluding others, early sexual activity, and succumbing to peer pressure.

When Ashley and I first began this book, we wrote out a wish list of Supertraits we wanted for kids—gratitude, honesty, empathy, fairness. If we could sufficiently arm children with Supertraits such as these, we hoped that problems would bounce off them just as easily as bullets bounced off Superman.

Then Victoria Talwar taught that us that a child’s dishonesty was a sign of intelligence and social savvy. Nancy Darling explained how teens’ deception was almost a necessary part of developing one’s adolescent identity. Laurie Kramer’s research showed us how blind devotion to fairness can derail sibling relationships. Patricia Hawley and Antonius Cillessen revealed how empathy may be evil’s best tool: the popular kids are the ones who are the best at reading their friends—and using that perception for their gain. And of course, there was that study about imprisoned felons having higher emotional intelligence than the population as a whole.

It isn’t as if we’ve now abandoned our desire for children to acquire honesty and other virtues. (And we’re still telling kids to “play nice” and say thank you.) But we no longer think of them as Supertraits—moral Kevlar.

The researchers are concluding that the good stuff and the bad stuff are not opposite ends of a single spectrum. Instead, they are each their own spectrum. They are what’s termed orthogonal—mutually independent.

Because of this, kids can seem to be walking contradictions. A child can run high in positive emotions and high in negative emotions—so the fact that a teen can be happy about a new boyfriend won’t negate her stress over school. There can be wild disconnects between children’s stated opinions and their actions. Kids can know that fruit tastes good and that it’s good for them—but that doesn’t mean kids will eat any more apples.

And many factors in their lives—such as sibling interactions, peer pressure, marital conflict, or even gratitude—can be both a good influence and a bad influence.

Despite these contradictions, the goal of having a deeper understanding of children is not futile. In fact, it’s by studying these apparent contradictions very closely that deeper understanding emerges.

It’s when children are at their most mysterious that we, their caretakers, can learn something new.
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