On Board Games, Mo Willems, and the Growth Mindset

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Having the summers off is hardly the reason I became a teacher, but it is one of the best job perks we get. There is no greater feeling than those first couple weeks of summer vacation. You don’t plan 101 things to do each day because you’ve got all the time in the world, or rather, you’ve got the whole summer. Likewise, you don’t really want to do anything just yet. No papers to grade…no lessons to plan. You could do the laundry today or tomorrow or the day after that. You’re not quite ready to pack a cooler and head to the beach or spend the afternoon at the water park. You stop setting the alarm, start binge-watch late night television, and enjoy that first morning when you finally sleep in.

The first week of summer is for writing the list of all the things you are going to do with your time: camping trips to take, yard sales to have, books to read, barbecues to host, gardens to plant, and home improvement projects to put off. But that first week, when the sun isn’t scorching yet, you simply hang out with your children enjoying that time you miss when school is in session.

One afternoon last summer while my little one was napping, I told my oldest that we could play Monopoly. She’d gotten the game for Christmas and we’d only taken it out a couple of times.

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I believe in board games, but I don’t believe in “letting” kids win. That afternoon, I played Monopoly. I bought my real estate and added houses, then hotels. While not in the official rules, we play that all monies from fines and jail-fees get deposited into the middle of the board game. If you land on the free parking space, you get the pot.

Throughout our game, the free parking pile was growing and growing. Meanwhile, my daughter was in a position where if she didn’t get some money soon, she was going to need to start mortgaging properties. She was eyeing that free parking wad like a hungry college kid…And then I landed on it.

As I scooped up the cash, my daughter started to cry.

“Why are you crying?”

“You took my Life Saver.” Her face was streaked with tears, but she was laughing at this point too.

“Do you want to quit?” I questioned.

“No, but you took my Life Saver.”

She wiped her cheeks and then the game continued. Eventually she lost, but she kept playing till the bitter end.

This year will conclude my sixteenth year in education. Over the course of my career, there have been a lot of buzz words that have come and gone. These past few years, the buzz is all about Growth Mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck.

The premise is pretty simple. If you tell yourself that you cannot do math, you won’t be successful at math. That is having a fixed mindset—a way of thinking that says that your abilities are pre-determined and if you aren’t good at something, you’ll never be good at it. Fixed mindsets are the reason even high-achieving students shut down when things become difficult and often shift the blame for their shortcomings. If you struggle, but you keep working despite your difficulties, believing that through hard work you will improve, then you have a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets have grit. They don’t give up.

Last year, every teacher at my school was given a copy of Dweck’s Mindset for a faculty book study. Everything I read made sense, but I’m not sure if I got more out of it as a parent or an educator. While teachers are asked to operate in loco parentisteachers can’t be solely responsible for developing growth mindsets in their students if the parents have not also provided a foundation whereby it is acceptable for their children to fail.

Every day I witness a student text their parents to bring them something they forgot at home, and the parents bring it. A parent emails me upset that her child did not earn the points for an assignment that was not turned in by the deadline. She knows it was done before the deadline; she made sure it was complete, yet the child never turned it in. Somehow it is unfair that the child be penalized for that. I hold my breath after posting semester grades knowing that I will hear from a few parents who want to know why I couldn’t round their child’s 88% up to an A.

When we strip children of all responsibility, they never grow into responsible adults. In the adult world, deadlines exist. In the adult world, no one brings you your forgotten lunch. In the adult world, people experience disappointment.

Children learn through failure if they are allowed to fail, and if they develop the perseverance to try again.

As the Japanese proverb says, fall down seven times; stand up eight.

Letting children fail is an idea that fell out of favor around the same time the Self-Esteem Movement began. Helicopter parenting and participation trophies are just a few by-products of that movement. Thankfully, as with all movements, the pendulum swings.

Promoting a growth mindset starts with praising effort over ability, which sounds like a trophy for everyone, but it’s not. Beyond just putting forth effort, having a growth mindset is about finding new strategies and solutions when one is stuck.

I’ve written about my daughter’s participation in karate before, but for her last belt test, she had to memorize the black belt success system: Set a goal; Take action; Pay attention to details; Change what’s not working; Practice, Practice, Practice; Eventually these steps will lead to mastery. In order to belt test, a student needs to get all of their black tips. This doesn’t always happen on the first try. In fact, my daughter often gets white-tipped. She receives feedback and returns home to perfect the skill. I’ve never seen greater self-esteem in her than when she has earned a new belt she has worked for.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. (Palmer, The Teacher’s Manual, 1840)

About a week ago, I took my youngest daughter to the library. As we were driving there, she told me that she wanted to look for Piggy and Gerald books.

“Do you know Piggy and Gerald, Momma?”

I did not, but she had read some at preschool and was already a fan. While I was able to locate a few other books by that same author, Mo Willems, there were no Piggy and Gerald books to be found. We ended up with Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed and a book about a dinosaur named Edwina instead. In the process of searching though, I found out that Willems is also the author of several books my children own and love, namely Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

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Later that same day, I came across this article published in The New Yorker: Mo Williams’s Funny Failures with the subtitle: How the Author Teaches Young Readers to Confront Problems and Be Resilient.

The article states that, “Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In ‘Elephants Cannot Dance!,’ they can’t; in ‘Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,’ Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does.” What strikes readers, however, are not the obstacles these characters face, it’s their doggedness. The same determination exists in those who possess a growth mindset, where hurdles are not seen as barriers, but as challenges to surmount.

In the article, Willems’s wife, who worked in a school, contributes this anecdote. “There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them.”

On any given day, if you ask my daughter a game she’d like to play, she will choose Monopoly. She doesn’t pick the game that she’s most likely to win; she chooses the game that is a challenge for her, a game that each time she plays, she gets a little better at having learned from her past mistakes.

I believe in board games. I believe in failure. I believe, as my students say, in driving the struggle bus. Not letting the pigeon drive it, but allowing my children to get behind the wheel and navigate it themselves.

An Open Letter to My Second Child

Dear Youngest Daughter,

There are so many times I want to say I’m sorry. Times when I feel that in being born second, you somehow got slighted.

I remember a few occasions when you were a baby that I had to stay home from work with you; it felt so foreign to be just us. As I entertained you with Sophie the Giraffe, I realized how little I did this, how much I had with your sister. But the minute she came home, I understood why. She was your playmate whereby I had been hers. I worried when your sister didn’t want to sign up for tee-ball or dance, but all she really wanted to do after school, she said, was play with her baby sister.

Your sister had four whole years of my undivided attention. Even after you were born, there were days when she and I were off from school that you went to daycare and we did something fun together, something you were deemed too little to do: an afternoon matinée, a trip to the pottery store, a round of mini-golf. You grew wiser, and these rendezvous became more secretive, but I told myself that it would all even out in the end.

As notices come home from preschool reminding parents to write their child’s name inside their coats, I never need to comply. Yours are already labeled in black Sharpie marker with your sister’s name. Your crib, your clothes, your books, your bows–all of it, before it belonged to you, it belonged to her.

When you got your first cavity, I nearly cried. This was certainly my fault. I meticulously brushed your sister’s teeth well into kindergarten, but you? In the bathroom you were left under the watchful eye of your sister. Even when you asked for my help, there were times I was too busy or too lazy to assist you. “You’re a big girl; you can do it,” I would tell you. Walking into the dentist’s office for your filling, I worried that I would be mom-shamed. The hygienist reassured me that many children, a lot younger than you, got cavities. The dentist told me that sometimes air pockets form in a child’s baby teeth, making them more prone to decay: I shouldn’t fret. But I did. I watched from the folding chair as they numbed up your little mouth, and I was convinced I was the worst mother in the universe.

When your sister’s Friday folder came home from school asking parents to register their children for the upcoming school year, I immediately went online to take care of it. It wasn’t until weeks later that I sat up in bed in the wee hours of morning, my eyes popped round in horror. I hadn’t signed YOU up for kindergarten. You weren’t in the school system yet, and I had neglected to add you. I had neglected to remember that you too would be attending elementary school next year. And as I rushed to the computer to take care of it, the system would not let me: Your application is complete. Try as I might, I could not beat the system. Instead, I had to walk into the main office of the elementary school and admit my mistake: I had forgotten about you.

I could write a whole list of things that your sister has gotten to experience that you have not, and I could go out of my way to spoil you in an effort to make up for it all. I could buy you clothes and toys that you do not need. I could throw you lavish birthday parties to reconcile for the past four years where I tried to get away with convincing you that your sister’s birthday party was also for you. I could do that, I could, but I’m not going to.

You see, there is one thing that you have that your sister does not. There is one gift that I gave to you that I never gave to her. A gift that is better than any other material gesture I could make. You will never outgrow it; you will never tire of it. You will never be at a loss when it is around. That gift, is having a big sister.

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Even when there are times that I may fail you, she will not.

Your sister has loved you from the moment you entered this world. From the second you inhaled your first breath of cool air, she has been there. You have, nor will you ever, be alone.

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Your sister has fed you bottles of milk and spoonfuls of mashed peas, but she has nourished your soul in more ways than your body. She has provided you countless hours of laughter and has rubbed your back when you cried. She has played with you on the living room rug for entire days without tiring and had sleepovers on your trundle-bed, night after night, upon your request. She has taught you songs and read books to you. Together, you have created works of art.

She has paved a path for you, letting you watch her work so that “you’ll know what you’re doing in third grade.” She has told you “That’s good problem solving!” when you were working hard, and she has believed in you. Remember that time at gymnastics when you were scared to jump out of the butterfly window into the foam pit below? She kept telling you that you could do it, and as she and I watched you fly from the ledge that first day, she looked at me with a gigantic smile. Your success was partly her own.

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Your sister has a very sweet heart. She is sensitive and kind. When she accidentally does something that hurts you, it is she who cries. Selfless. Patient. Her traits will serve you well, especially in times when you may not see eye-to-eye. For even when you annoy her, she will love you more.

When the summer starts dwindling and you take those first steps into your kindergarten classroom, she will be right by your side, and she will be so proud of you. If you get hurt on the playground, your sister will pick you up and kiss your bruised knee and your bruised ego. And later on, when it is your heart that is hurting, your sister will heal that too.

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You see, like you, I am the little sister. Like you, I had cavities when my big sister did not. Like you, I wore coats inscribed with someone else’s name. In so many ways, I am like you- or rather, you are like me. And your sister- she is just like my sister.

When I watch you two building towers with Lincoln Logs or dressing up Barbie Dolls, I see me and my sister, many years ago, doing the very same things. I remember how my big sister played school with me, something I believe shaped me into the teacher I am today. I recall the conversations we had in the dark, stifling giggles so as not to wake our mother, or times when I reached my hand out across the expanse to hold hers and was comforted.

As we grew, we created memories that were just for us. I know that you and your sister will do the same.

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I may not always be the perfect mother. There are times when I will be disappointed that I didn’t do better by you, or by your sister. But in giving you a big sister, I will always be thankful: It is one of life’s greatest blessings.

Photo Credits: Jami Lynn Photography
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