Thursday, June 20, 2013

Parenting Is Culture: Why Don Draper Is A Terrible Father

Some minor Mad Men spoilers ahead.

This article is incredibly important to everyone, despite seeming as though it is only for parents of young children. It singlehandedly explains what’s wrong with American society. (OK, it explains some of what’s wrong with it.)

It’s a long piece, so I’ll summarize the findings:

1) Children who are praised for working hard on something tend to face new challenges by trying harder, spending more energy and time on the task at hand.  

2) Children who are praised for how smart they are respond differently. When faced with a difficult problem, they give up faster. They care more about their scores in relation to other children, making them more likely to lie or cheat in order to maintain them. They look for approval and guidance in authority figures, glancing up at them during a task or stating answers in the form of inflected questions, like they’re not sure and want confirmation.

The major difference in these praise types is that the first implies the child is in control of their ability: applying effort is a strategy for overcoming a problem. The second implies the child is inherently more or less capable—“intelligence” or “talent” is something they either have or they don’t. If they are able to perform a task with ease, they’re good at it; if they are not, they are bad at it.

This quality of “being good at something” is intrinsically linked to other people’s perception. When a child succeeds and you call them smart, the child understands that you wouldn’t call them “smart” if they had failed. As a result, they opt to perform tasks that confirm this because you made the value judgment for them. Smartness is also typically judged on a scale—in relation to how others perform at the same task. The hierarchy then matters.

The implications of this are humongous, as I’ll go into later.

3) Children who don’t have good strategies for handling failure struggle later on in life, shying away from activities and problems that they are not immediately good at. They come to view “trying hard” as a sign of their inability or stupidity, creating negative reinforcement.

4) By the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is actually a sign that you lack ability and need the encouragement. Teenagers interpret praise as criticism.

5) Giving students a single seminar on how the brain is like a muscle that can be exercised to make you smarter showed improved study habits and grades.

6) Having high self-esteem is overrated. Studies don’t show that it improves grades or career achievement. It doesn’t lower alcohol usage. It doesn’t lower violence (and in fact aggressive, violent people tend to think very highly of themselves).

7) The difference in praise types is marked and immediate, and kids are highly sensitive to minor amounts of it. In the experiment on different praise types performed on fifth-graders, they used a single line of praise and got different results. It affected both boys and girls, but it strongly affected the brightest girls—who collapsed the most following failure.

If you feel that any of the above seven points should be obvious to people and are wondering why anyone would write an article explaining them, then you would be way off. In 1969, some dude named Nathaniel Branden wrote a book called The Psychology of Self-Esteem that explained how self-esteem was critical to everything about a person and that improving kids’ self-esteem was the best way to help them succeed later in life. Between 1970 and 2000, over 15,000 scholarly articles were written on self-esteem. But on closer inspection, a lot of those articles were “polluted with flawed science.” Only 200 of them passed scientific standards as set by a reviewer appointed by the Association for Psychological Science, and those studies showed self-esteem did not have many of the positive effects it was purported to have.

At the time, Baumeister [the reviewer and a leading proponent of self-esteem] was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Not only that, but American parents are notorious for focusing on their kids’ intelligence, even as babies. When compared with other European countries, American parents were the only ones who frequently described their kids as “cognitively advanced.” They also used other descriptors tied to intelligence. A Columbia University survey showed that 85% of American parents thought it was important to tell their kids they were smart.

There are some insidious things all this research hints at, about our culture. And it’s a self-perpetuating problem. In fact it’s been perpetuating itself since the 70’s, and the trend has snowballed ever since.

The article describes better ways to praise your kid: be specific, and be sincere. My even simpler interpretation of this advice? DON’T LIE.

I. Where the Lies Begin

Children are lied to. It happens. In fact, we feel like we’re supposed to lie to them, to protect them from things. It would be discouraging to call a five-year-old stupid and ignorant, for instance, even if that is probably true considering they are five years old.

However calling someone stupid and ignorant is pure malice. Why would you do that to anyone, if not to make them feel bad about themselves?

That isn’t honesty. That’s an emotional manipulation.

Now take the opposite of that. I’m not talking about simple politeness. I’m saying if someone, for instance, fails a math test, and you brush it off by saying, “Don’t feel bad about that. You’ll do better next time! You’re so good at math.”

That is also a dishonest emotional manipulation, although the intent is to make them feel better about themselves, which doesn’t seem so bad.

But if you do this every time they fail a test, they will never learn to deal with failed tests. Not only that, claiming they’re “good at math” (or “smart”) will result in their feeling even dumber for failing at something they’re supposed to be good at. Yet adults do this all the time, and they’ve been doing it for generations.

Think about the underlying, fundamental lesson this teaches kids: “Getting you to feel good about yourself is so important, I will openly lie to you to do it. Lying is an appropriate method to a) avoid real criticism, b) describe yourself in order to gain approval from others, c) make others feel good or bad about themselves.”

II. Our Own Reflection

Suddenly, the truth just isn’t important anymore. Words are just tools for creating specific emotions or making things look better or worse than they really are.

Reread that last paragraph, and realize that I’ve just stated Don Draper’s motto—not just in his job as an advertiser but in his life as a husband, a father, a lover, and a coworker. A lot of people really like Don Draper—at least in the earlier seasons when everything was still on the up-and-up. They dislike him now that he’s losing control of his fa├žade, and it’s all catching up to him all too quickly.

Yet why weren’t they able to detect this ugly aspect of his character before? Hm, was it because he actually represented their own model for success? Rich, handsome, married to a lovely wife with lovely kids, respected by his peers, irresistible to the hotties. They didn’t care that he was lying on multiple levels—to everyone, about a lot of things. They didn’t care that his actual life was kind of miserable. He had every status symbol, and other people praised him.

What does this say about us? What does it say that Don Draper is idolized and envied?

I found this little piece on the Huffington Post: “Don Draper’s a Monster, and Here’s Why We’re Finally Noticing.” You don’t have to read it because it isn’t remotely insightful, but here’s the author’s reason why Don was so well-liked: “I think I know what it is: Don is so cool … Being the alpha dog is cool.” He uses the word “cool” nine times in the article. He doesn’t even have the language to define what it is, beyond a synonym for “good.” It’s so ingrained into our culture we can no longer properly dissect it.

What this and other articles about Don Draper fail to mention is that we grew up in a culture where success is defined by other people’s valuations of ourselves. Their praise matters more than our own. (In fact, we do not know how to praise ourselves; we assume we can’t do it.) How things look on the surface is everything, and Don looks perfect.

We want to be Don Draper because he has everything we want. He has possessions. He has looks. He has this seemingly natural poise and charisma. He has power and influence.

These qualities are actually all admirable qualities. That’s what makes this tricky. There is nothing inherently bad about having these things—who wouldn’t want charisma? Who wouldn’t want influence? Who wouldn’t want wealth? If we could have these things by making a simple yes-or-no choice, we would choose to have them.

That’s the thing, though. Don didn’t make a simple choice. He paid a price.

It isn’t about what Don has. It is about how far he went to get them. And in the society we live in, we are conditioned to believe that these things are clearly what we should want and that there is no price too high to get them. These things have been shown throughout history, literature, and science NOT to make people happy, but our culture has drowned those messages in better advertising.

If we were in a different culture, we might have recognized the problem with Don Draper right away. We might have seen it: He’s living a lie. He’s unhappy, lacks virtue, lacks friends. He doesn’t have anything of true value. Why would anyone want to be him? Why is there a TV show about this guy?

But it is because we are living in this culture; it is because that time period is where it all started; it is because Don Draper is incredibly interesting to us. That is why this show is significant. It is a reflection of ourselves by its very existence.

What is the test of our culture? Is it the ability to be true to ourselves, despite what anyone else sees? Is it the ability to be happy regardless of our possessions and the amount of praise and attention we receive? Clearly not.

If there are people out there, passing that test, how would we know? They don’t have a need to project themselves outward, and thus they remain hidden. If our parents don’t pass these lessons down, then we have no way of learning how valuable they are. The media only produces what they think we want to see, and thus it will rarely contain lessons that we aren’t expecting. The media is not the parent we need; it is the parent we want.

III. The Price of Praise

Parents do what they believe is best for their kids. If they believe what is best for kids is to feel good about themselves, that will affect their form of praise. On the other hand, if they believe what is best for kids is to learn from their mistakes and face the reality that “not everything is easy,” that will also affect their form of praise.

Part of why parents may believe feeling good is so important is that they want that for themselves. They also want to be praised by others. This desire reflects in their parenting method.

Parents also often see children as an extension of themselves. “What I want, they should want. If they’re good or smart, that’s a reflection on me. If they’re bad or not smart, that is also a reflection on me.”

This is a stereotype, but Asian parents are terribly gossipy about their own kids. They brag when their kids do well in school, or if they get into good schools. They are ashamed when their kids aren’t doing well and ask for advice on what to do. This competition among parents drives them to spend a lot of energy and money to make sure their kids are winning the race, in an effort to make themselves look better.

The stereotype that Asians are good at math implies that they have a natural talent for it. Au contraire, their parents want them to be good at everything, and math is easier to excel at with a lot of afterschool cramming. “Being good at math” is basically just “doing more math.” The extra practice increases familiarity and speed at solving problems. It also makes it so you’ve seen the material before the teacher teaches it to you. It makes math really easy, and in the classroom, finding something “really easy” translates into “being good at it.” I explained the problems with this already.

You may have heard of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She’s a Chinese-American “Tiger Mom” who tried to raise her kids in the same strict way her own parents did, emphasizing academic excellence and overachievement.

From Wikipedia: Chua also reported that in one study of 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, the vast majority said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Chua contrasts them with the view she labels “Western”—that a child’s self-esteem is paramount.

I’m going to propose something. The debate over Eastern vs. Western styles of parenting isn’t as important as the way in which each is carried out.

Assume the parents have the same goal for their kids: they want their kids to do well in school.

Set A of parents believe their kids’ success is a reflection of themselves. They have skin in the game, so to speak. They resort to emotional manipulation and lying in order to achieve their ends. This includes empty threats, praise regardless of achievement, comparisons to other kids (“Why can’t you be more like Timmy?” or “You’re so much better than Timmy.”), and violence (in an attempt to inspire fear or obedience).

Set B of parents don’t care what other parents think or what other kids are doing. They still want their kids to get good grades, and they employ methods appropriate to get there. This can include afterschool programs and limiting playtime. They can be as strict or as loose as they want. However they don’t give any fake praise or fake punishment. The children’s goal is not to gain the approval of their parents, rather it is to achieve tangible goals so they can feel good about them on their own.

Eastern parents and Western parents can fall into either Set A or B, easily.

The problem with parents who write books or articles about parenting is that they’re more likely to fall into Set A.

If you’ve seen enough Mad Men, you know that Don Draper’s parents fall into Set A. Betty Draper lands headfirst into Set A.

Don Draper himself? His role is not that of the parent; it is of the child. He desires their approval and refuses to let them see him as anything but Santa Claus. The mystical, magical man who comes down the chimney on special occasions, showers them with gifts, and then disappears. He balks at the idea of punishing Bobby and lets him off with a few words. After bailing on Sally’s birthday party, he comes home later with a new dog. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness; he pretends nothing happened.

Don Draper cares not for his children’s welfare. If he did, he would be involved in their upbringing and readying them for adulthood.

This complete indifference is hard to spot, for some. Don never punishes his children or hits his children. He provides for them. He gives them gifts. He spends time with them. He gives them freedom. Compared to Betty, he may seem like Parent of the Year.

Once you get to Season 6, however, you will find out just how far Don will go to maintain his image to his children, in one of Don’s ugliest and most awkward moments on screen. 

It is really hard for parents to think of them this way, but children are just adults with no experience. They aren’t robots, puppies, or robotic puppies. Fact of the matter is, experience is going to hit them at some point. Any lies you tell them when they’re young, they will figure out later. Will they forgive you for them, because they feel like you had their best interests at heart? Or will they be unable to trust you ever again?

When they hit the point of no return, that is when children grow up. Handling it like an adult means looking straight into the eyes of truth and not turning away.

Are you teaching them to be an adult?