538. As Standards Evolve

I don’t like sweeping statements about what to expect of children of a certain age. Most children, like most adults, like to be seen and heard as individuals; they don’t like to fit into patterns other people have in mind. As a teacher and parent, it has often been useful to know about patterns in children’s development, but I’ve tried to avoid telling children that they fit these patterns – even when I’ve thought that they did. The adults who have known these children have also been annoyed by attempts to apply generalizations to children.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t see patterns. I do. And now, as I prepare myself to work with children who are entering fourth grade, I remember a trend I’ve seen in many fourth graders I’ve worked with: no matter how confident they were in their writing, drawing, or other creative activities before fourth grade, they tend to be very critical of their own work in fourth grade. Teachers and parents may try to convince them to take pride in their work, but many fourth-graders I’ve known have been much harder to convince than they were earlier.
It can be frustrating. Most first-graders tend to believe that what they create is praiseworthy, and to love and believe what praise they get. That tendency is there in second and third grade, too. But too often, as children
get more and more competent, they stop believing in their own competence. They become more skeptical about praise – more apt to think adults’ praise is insincere, or just plain wrong. They have their own standards, and what they create doesn’t meet those standards – doesn’t even come close.
This is when many children give up on certain skills: “I can’t draw.” “I can’t sing.” “I can’t write.” Their teachers and parents may try to get them to hang in there, but it’s an uphill struggle; children know what they consider “good,” and what they create doesn’t measure up to their standards.
I think I’ve found an approach that works with some children who are dealing with their own newly developing standards. Though I may have spent a few years praising them and their creations, I ease up on the lavish praise, and listen to the self-criticism. I try to hear what they expect of themselves, and hear the disappointment they feel. Sure, the picture or words I’m looking at may be the best I’ve ever seen from this child, but if the child wishes it were better, maybe I should pay attention to that wish. Some children really appreciate that kind of attention; they feel respected when an adult accepts their new standards. To them, that’s much more important than praise.
Fourth grade is the time I notice self-criticism the most. I know it happens earlier for some children. And I know some people criticize themselves and their creations throughout their lives. But three weeks from now, I’ll be working with fourth-graders, and I won’t be surprised if some of them seem less confident than they used to be.

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