Early influences start (really) early

It is staggering to think how many of the decisions we take are influenced by events early in our lives. I’m not thinking of those biological, pre-birth influences such as diet, activity levels and audio-stimulus. I’m rather thinking of the post-toddler childhood and early school years – a phase rich in external influences and events which captivate, excite, motivate, engage, enthuse – or the reverse.

It’s not difficult to see where those influences come from. We tend to engage more readily with other people who are having fun and enjoying life, so we subconsciously respond to their cues on what is fun and enjoyable, further reinforcing and perpetuating the messages. Young children are surrounded by others of a similar age, and it doesn’t take long for a new playground “craze”, for example, to sweep through schools as children convince each other how fun and exciting it is. The young influencers spread the word quickly as friends redefine what is fun or “cool” to do in the playground – until it is replaced by a new definition from a different source. And there are plenty of potential sources, from role-model super-heroes (real or imaginary) to cleverly-marketed ideas from the professionals.

It is noticeable how narrow the range of role-models is for these young children. The “real” variety tend to be high-profile celebrities (always in the news, and frequently a topic of conversation for parents); sportsmen (footballers are a common favourite); popstars or dancers; or sometimes children’s television presenters.

An obvious attraction of these role-models for young people is that it’s easy to see what they actually “do” – they appear on the television or in shiny magazines; they play football; they sing or dance; they present funny or interesting things on the television. Most of these things are easily identifiable to even young children. Money is unlikely to be a motivator at this early age; the ease with which they can be identified, and the sense of fun is more likely to be the motivator.

There are pockets of special cases – the vet who cures a sick family pet; the kind baker who always pulls a coin from inside a child’s ear; the hairdresser who always gives a lolly after a haircut – people who somehow make a mark on a child for some reason, and for a while they unwittingly guide a child in the direction of that particular profession. These special cases are generally fewer and further apart than the earlier high-profile examples, and they don’t create as lasting an effect.

How many parents talk to their young children about their own profession; about what they do at work every day? Is it any wonder that children grow up wanting to be footballers, pop-stars or celebrities rather than accountants, solicitors, scientists or consultants? Isn’t it time we started to excite our own children about what we do? Not as encouragement to do the same, but just so that they understand the range of choices open to them. London 2012 has created a new group of Olympians who will undoubtedly inspire and encourage many to start a new sport. There are occasionally huge news stories which create an interest in a new field and inspire a generation – Man landing on the Moon; Curiosity landing on Mars; the development of Concorde; invention of wireless telegraphy. But we could do so much more to inspire the youth of today by looking around us now and engaging with them, rather than waiting for world events to do it for us.

The examples I used above were natural for me to choose – based on science and technology, they were early influences in my life. The Vietnam War; The Arab-Israeli Conflict; The Suez Crisis could just as easily have inspired me but I had already made subconscious decisions earlier in my life, and those major world events didn’t interest me.

For me, it could have all been so different (not necessarily better or worse, but different) had I been exposed to different influences. I might still have made the same life choices in the end, but I might have done that whilst being better informed. And being better informed is probably a good thing.

 

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Inspiration from London 2012

In an earlier post, I wondered what London 2012 would provide in terms of memorable moments – broken records, outstanding achievements, personal stories and inspiration to us all.  At that time, I anticipated that there would be some surprises but I completely underestimated the scale of what it would bring.

On two separate occasions GB medal-winners encouraged others to “go for it” and live the dream, along the lines of “I’m just an ordinary girl; if I can do it, anyone can“.

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold medal in the women’s pair
Great Britain has an excellent record in rowing, so it was quite likely that some medals would come from the rowing events.  But the remarkable thing is that Helen only started rowing in 2008 and was motivated by watching the GB team winning in Beijing. She was selected to take part in the Sporting Giants scheme, an initiative from Sir Steve Redgrave.
“I remember sitting in a room in Bisham Abbey [the National Sports Centre] and someone saying: ‘A gold medallist in 2012 could be sat in this room. Look around you’. I thought: ‘Right, I’m going to make that me.’ It was quite surreal.”
Immediately after winning the gold, exhausted and breathing heavily she said “I hope my story can be an inspiration for kids in PE or at home thinking about taking up a new sport. Just go on, go for it – you don’t know what’s going to happen”.

She was originally motivated enough to think “I can do that” in response to watching others win gold, and spent the next four years proving that she could. And then she encouraged others to follow her. Totally inspiring.

Samantha Murray won silver in the modern pentathlon
Asked immediately after her final race what she was doing four years ago, she said she was doing her A-levels, having started pentathlon, but she wasn’t competing at a senior level.  As a child she had wanted to be an Olympian, and at the age of 12 had put a poster on her bedroom wall of pentathlon gold-medallist Steph Cook at the Sydney Olympics.
“Honestly, if you have a goal – if there’s anything you want to achieve in life – don’t let anybody get in your way. You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do”. Again, totally inspiring. I wonder how many posters of Sam will adorn bedroom walls of future Olympians.

I suspect that many of us will immediately think to ourselves “but you’re absolutely not an ‘ordinary girl’, you’re exceptional”, and we’d be right – they are exceptional. In one important respect, they are more exceptional than the rest of us… they believe in themselves.

As these ‘ordinary girls’ showed, achieving great things always involves getting over the first hurdle – believing in ourselves. It might not be the hardest part, but it is surely the most important.

There are no rules

I’ve told you a million times already – that’s not what it’s for.  Climb up on the steps and slide down on the slide“.
These were the words from a mother to her 5-year old son in the playground today after she watched him happily (and harmlessly) climbing the hard way up the slide.  The child continued playing on the slide, but obediently using the steps to go up and the slide to come down (“conventionally”, as an adult would see it but “restrictively” in the eyes of a child).

Who says that’s what it’s there for?  It’s there for fun; for enjoyment; for imagination.  How confusing must it be for a child to be constrained in this way?  After all, wasn’t the mother (albeit unintentionally) stopping him from having fun?  He wasn’t doing anyone any harm – and for him it was more fun to go up the slide and down the steps!

Children already have so many constraints imposed by parents, many for good reason, that it seems unreasonably harsh to impose yet more without good reason.  The great thing about play is that there are no rules.

When is a good time to stop listening?

“Never! It’s always good to listen”, is probably the reflex answer to this.  There are always people around who have experienced things for themselves, and who are happy to share the benefit of their experience.  In the work environment, it makes sense to listen to those who can tell you how to do something, or how not to.  At home, it makes sense for children to listen to parents or elders – after all, they’re almost certainly explaining something for the benefit of the child rather than themselves.

Parents will have noticed this with children.  A parent can tell a child something “a million times”, and the child will still stick his/ her hand in the fire, or touch the wet paint, or fall in the water.  At the time, it feels as though the child is being deliberately disobedient but I ought to be more charitable… it may have simply “decided” that this is a good time to learn by doing rather than by being told.

I’ve no idea how a child would determine when is a good time to be selectively disobedient and to learn by doing – it might just be random.  But either way, the child should be applauded for this approach since the resultant learning will invariably be more valuable.  However in the worst case examples, the natural reaction of a parent might be to scold a child, thereby reducing the likelihood of the child learning the next time, and perpetuating the problem.  Exactly the same logic applies to adults.

If we want to encourage real learning, we need to encourage failure – “we should be making more mistakes”.  But that inevitably means we should stop listening – sometimes.