He was explaining his theory that every child should have a pet that dies and asked me if our daughter, then aged 11, had.
I said yes – a cat, several lambs, a calf, a horse – oh and a grandmother and two brothers.
He was a little nonplussed by the last three but regained his composure and said that was good, because if children learn about loss and recovery when they’re young it will help them cope with it later in life when, faced with other, possibly greater losses and disappointments.
Few if any people go through life untouched by challenges and if children are protected from all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when they’re young they will be ill-equipped to deal with much more painful ones when they’re older.
Parents naturally want their children to be happy but protecting them from events and situations that make them unhappy provides false security.
So too does protecting them from failure.
A Perth school is cutting back on praise because it’s concerned that society’s focus on boosting self-esteem leaves many struggling to cope with failure on leaving school.
St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls wrote to parents explaining why it introduced strategies this year to minimise praise, reduce reward stickers for participation and provide work that was deliberately too difficult so students could experience failure.
Junior school head Julie Quansing-Rowlands said the prevailing wisdom in schools for many years had been that building up children’s self-esteem would lead to high achievement.
But recent research showed this simplistic approach backfired.
Over-praising meant children were less able to cope with disappointments they faced later in life.
She wrote an article in the school newsletter in response to parents’ questions on why their children were no longer getting 100 per cent on tests and homework.
She said research had found that children who received top marks could develop the perception that learning was easy.
“When they do finally experience failure, they are unable to cope with this feeling,” she wrote.
“Praising children for the 100 per cent or the A-grade develops the perception that success is linked to a state of being smart and to achieve that mark, students have been known to risk cheating.
“Giving students the label of smart does not prevent them from under-performing but may actually cause it.”
Heaping praise on students also gave them a false sense of their ability and led to a sense of entitlement.
“We want to give students praise for what they have control over,” she said. “They don’t have control over their IQ because that’s what they’re born with but they have control over how much work they put in and their perseverance.”
. . . Ms Quansing-Rowlands said as well as teaching academic subjects, schools had to help students develop life skills, such as the resilience and persistence they would need to survive in the real world.
“What we’ve found now is that some children can’t cope with criticism or the fact they didn’t get a sticker for participating,” she said.
Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay said schools such as St Hilda’s were on the cutting edge of a new way of thinking.
“We’re beginning to understand that it actually damages children to constantly praise them, constantly tell them they’re special and build up their self-esteem,” he said.
“New research is demonstrating that it’s not self-esteem but self- respect and self-control that really are the best predictors of how well kids are going to perform in high school.”
Mr Mackay said society’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness and self-esteem was driving the idea that everything had to be fabulous – avoiding pain, suffering and disappointment.
“Whereas everything in our culture says adversity is the great teacher and you don’t build resilience in kids unless they learn to cope with failure,” he said.
Parents and schools have a duty to prepare children for the real world.
That requires the ability to deal with good times and bad, life and death, success and failure.
Children who are helped to deal with disappointment and loss when they are young will be better able to cope with them when they’re older.