Get Off the Praise Train and Start Making

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I grew up surrounded by tinkering, making and creating. My father, brothers and community were always making and fixing anything they could get their hands on. I remember jumping on our bikes and heading out to the dump (I kid you not) to pick up scrap pieces for these creations. These were the days before recycling, so there were lots of gems to be found. We had unbridled access to numerous tools and large garages with our fathers being carpenters, heavy duty mechanics and all around makers in their own right. They weren’t always as happy as we were messing with their stuff! If anyone has been in my father’s garage, they can attest to a particularly colorful cardboard sign my father made.

As we grew, so did the creations. It started with bicycles, then moved into bicycles with engines, racing go-karts, RCs, cars, trucks and eventually into fully built four-wheeling machines that could literally get through anything.

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We were also always trying things that were a little out there. Looking back I would say outright dangerous, but very experiential and experimental. One such example would be pulling people behind a snowmobile with a water-ski tow rope on cross country skis over jumps. I still don’t know how one particularly daring friend, let’s call him Brandon, made it through those years, but he did (albeit with a few broken bones).

Their passions led them to their careers as carpenters, heavy duty mechanics, machinists, surveyors and engineers. As their interests continue to grow, so do their talents. I have one friend who now makes his own surf boards. Amazing and I’m so proud!

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I wasn’t as hands-on as the boys in our community (~10 boys and only 2 girls in the same 3 year span age group) and as I sit here today, I look back and wonder why. I had open access to all of this amazing stuff and I didn’t indulge in what I now know are deep interests of mine. Why? In part, it was due to having other interests. Upon turning 16, my brothers received money towards their first car and I got my own computer. Brothers = real world, hardware and physical. Me = software, reading and digital.

I believe a larger part was outside of these additional interests.

 

I held myself back.

I was cautious. I didn’t try something unless I knew I was going to be good at it. I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. The fear of failure was ever present and I was very guarded, even from a young age.

Some insight can be gleaned from Carol Dweck’s research and her book Mindset, with a short video summary here and a great synopsis on her website for how this applies to parenting. In summary, we are helping to fuel the innate differences in boys and girls. Boys tend to be more impulsive and (hyper)active so we encourage them and reward them more for trying. They are reprimanded more than girls and boys have a culture where they call each other names regularly. They learn to shrug things off, think less about what might happen if they fail and know that what one person says doesn’t define them. In contrast, girls are more obedient, quiet and eager to please (and are at a surprisingly early age) and are praised for how good they are or for how pretty they are. When someone does provide constructive feedback or when they aren’t good at something, they are more likely to internalize this and avoid failure much more than boys.

When we praise our kids for ability, we are teaching them to focus on looking good, not learning.

When we praise our kids for their intelligence, we are teaching them to avoid risks and anything that could question their intelligence and fundamentally, what makes them feel special.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman also touch on these areas in The Confidence Code. There were several observations that used or reinforced Dweck’s research above, but there is one part that stood out to me:

If you constantly reward your daughter for helping out, keeping quiet, or being tidy, you’re instilling a psychological addiction to goodness and to the praise that follows it.

So damn true.

This is even harder on the bright girls as Heidi Grant Halvorson writes. I can completely relate to this, long after being a “girl”.

In junior high and high school, I was on the science track and eventually went into engineering – in part because it’s what smart people do, but also because I have an incurable, relentless curiosity. Some would even say obsessive! I need to know how and why for everything. I was always in the top of my class, athletic and super smart and here I was struggling in first year engineering half-way through the first semester. We were hitting concepts in physics and calculus I had not seen before and I started to fall behind when other people in my class weren’t. I wasn’t enjoying the subject matter, but I believe more importantly, I wasn’t excelling for the first time in my life. It felt horrible.

So what did I do? Did I hunker down, keep at it and persevere? No, I dropped out of engineering and went into business and majored in the hardest pursuit – accounting. I was back to excelling, the top of the class. Whew, that was close!

 

Why did I struggle?

Why did I alter my plan? Numerous reasons. Some were societal and psychological as described above, but I believe three other things were missing:

1. Real-world application of what engineering really is and what it can be

I realized this when I had a tour of LightSail Energy‘s operations in early 2014 and I was blown away by the innovation and surprisingly, the beauty of what they were making. It was the first time I was in this type of setting – building their own high performance engine and making a lot of their parts on site. I loved the smell of the newly machined metal mixed with diesel. It brought me back to being in my Dad’s garage.

2. Visible Role Models

I didn’t have role models such as Danielle Fong (photo compliments of Wired UK & Cody Pikens).

Fong

 

Or Limor “Ladyada” Fried of Adafruit (photo compliments of Glamour).

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3. Lack of preparation from the school system, particularly in physics and math

I was not prepared. The education system failed me and I didn’t even know.

 

I regret not getting my hands dirtier when I was younger.

I was under the wrong presumption that computers, books and school were more important. Now, at 33 and a mother of two, I have found a way where the two worlds collide and I believe the best will come from the intersection and cross over of the two – bringing digital and physical together. Now I have the chance to correct this not only for myself, but also ensure my kids have the best of both worlds and I couldn’t be more excited.

Truth be told, I may be in the same place as I am today had I stayed in engineering. Perhaps I would be more technical and learning the business side instead of being business savvy and learning the technical. I believe, if we keep at it and are open to it, we will get ourselves back on the track to where we are meant to be.

I don’t claim to be able to fix all of these issues or to have all of the answers, but I can take steps in the right direction. It is evident to me that tinkering, creating, making and failing can be the savior for our boys, I lived it with the voraciously adventurous and strong-willed boys I grew up with and still call my closest friends. If you peel back the layers for girls, as I have done for me, I believe it can save our girls too.

To show a glimpse into what some of the new technology can bring to tinkering and making – check out some of the pictures from Maker Faire Silver Springs. If they dream it, they can build it.

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I want my kids to be a little rebellious, to push the boundaries and test their limits.

I want them to create things in the digital world and bring them to life in the physical world. I want them to take risks and see what works. I don’t want them to only worry about being right and I want them to approach everything as a learning experience, not an opportunity to be judged. As I have recently learned, not knowing is ok. Actually, it is better than ok. Not knowing is amazing and exciting because that means you have much to learn and experience.

I want to ensure my daughter doesn’t take 33 years to let her guard down, try new things and to stop trying to please other people or be someone else’s idea of what they should be.  The craziest thing to me with some of this recent reflection is I didn’t even really know this is what I was doing. I didn’t know I was following the praise train. That’s how ingrained these reward structures are and how early we can affect our girls.

We need to show our kids appropriate role models and to step up and be role models. We need to ensure our kids are getting the education they need – inside and outside of the education system. We need to encourage our kids (and ourselves) to take the scientist approach and experiment. We need to provide them with the tools to find it out for themselves and to back away.

That’s what makes life fun.

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