A Father Who Really Knew Best

BlogFamiliesJun 12 2014

Sometime after my father died of lung cancer in September 2011, I was compelled to jot down the 20 or so maxims which were commonplace in his daily interactions with me. My father was so fond of some of his favorites that I grew weary with repetition. But not my father. The conviction in his voice never wavered.

What I did not know until much later was that the messages embedded in my father’s words were woven into my consciousness. They were and are a part of me. My attitudes, behavior, view of the world, and how I view myself in relation to the world were all profoundly influenced by a few consistent messages from a caring adult.

Without knowing it, my father was promoting my positive development with regard to four crucial outcomes: goal orientation, persistence, mastery orientation, and positive risk taking. Research, I now know, has found each of these factors associated with positive outcomes later in life. It was like my father was working from an evidence-informed curriculum. But he never studied developmental psychology; he was an electrician. He just believed in the power of the spoken word and had the courage to speak positive things into existence.

Goal orientation is the desire and ability to make plans for the future and take steps to complete those plans. Adolescents with greater goal orientation have better grades and lower likelihood of smoking, fighting, and depressive symptoms than their peers.[i] My father’s approach to teaching goal setting was a simple allegory: Two friends, one athletically built, the other chubby, were walking along railroad tracks. They both tried to walk on the rails. The slender boy kept losing his balance and falling off the rail, while his friend had no trouble walking the rail for a great distance. Finally, the first boy asked his friend how he was able to do it. His friend replied, “You’ve been looking at your feet. I pick a spot where I want to get, and when I get there, I can always see farther.” When I was exhausted from hours of practice or challenging homework assignments, Dad would always remind me to “pick a spot.” This easy mantra helped me re-focus on my long-term goals and put short-term challenges into perspective. Pursuing ambitious goals can be frustrating, so I needed determination.

Persistence is the willingness to continue working on challenging tasks despite frustration or failure. [ii] Children who exhibit high levels of persistence are likely to be less anxious and feel more competent than children who exhibit lower levels.[iii] As my coach on  sports teams, my father fostered persistence. When we were exhausted from running or discouraged by a difficult drill, my father would say, “If it was easy, everybody would do it! You’re champions. Anybody can go when they’re 100 percent. Champions can go when they’re tired, when they’re hurt.” He made us better players. He also made us better people. The message transcended sports. When I encountered difficulties in school or set a challenging goal, my father’s words readily came to mind. I wanted to respond like a champion. This desire to persevere had a mutually reinforcing relationship with mastery orientation, which my father also helped to promote.

Mastery orientation is the tendency to derive intrinsic gratification from learning. Children with high levels of mastery orientation are less likely than children with low levels to say that they try hard in school in order to be viewed by others as competent. Mastery orientation is predictive of higher academic achievement.[iv,v] My father was known for pushing “loafers,” including me, to work harder. But not so we could win trophies. It was not enough for the fastest player on the team to win in sprints if he was not reaching his full potential. Dad would exclaim, “you can cheat me, but you can’t cheat yourself!” He encouraged us to do our best, not because we would receive some special recognition for it, but because “anything worth doing [was] worth doing right.” He also made it okay to ask questions. He insisted, “the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” It was about mastering the lesson, not looking like a know-it-all in front of peers. This was not an easy attitude to develop, especially in adolescence when my peers’ opinions of me took on greater importance. Thankfully, Dad was prepared with more wisdom that provided me the courage to take positive risks.

Risk taking is an inherent part of adolescence. Changes in the brain’s pleasure center predispose adolescents to seek novelty and excitement while the development of the brain’s self-regulation center lags behind, making it easier to respond to rewards than negative consequences.[vi] Positive risk taking is seen as a way to support this natural inclination in safe and productive ways. Young people who take positive risks are more likely than their peers to avoid alcohol and drugs and to have positive attitudes about themselves. My father intuitively knew this. Whether it was trepidation over asking a girl out or reluctance to pursue a challenging opportunity (e.g., public speaking), his words to me were the same: “Fear is crippling. We often miss out on the good we might have by failing to try.” He encouraged me to try new things and even to fail. He’d say, “the only person who never failed is the person who never did anything worthwhile.” I can’t say that this encouragement completely eliminated my negative risk taking, but I do believe that I was able to identify and willing to engage in more positive risks as a result of my father’s guidance.

Research assesses common ideas about raising children and identifies those that lead to positive outcomes. My father had remarkable intuition about what would promote positive development, but more importantly he found ways to translate that knowledge into edifying messages. Every parent, armed with appropriate research knowledge, has the ability to profoundly and positively influence their child’s future. This Father’s Day, I am so grateful that my dad embraced his role as the “resident expert” on me.

[i]Roeser, R. W., Strobel, K. R., & Quihuis, G. (2002). Studying early adolescents’ academic motivation, social-emotional functioning and engagement in learning: Variable- and person-centered approaches. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping: An International Journal, 345-368.

[ii]Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues, A Handbook and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

[iii]Lufi, D., & Cohen, A. (1987). A scale for measuring persistence in children. Journal of Personality Assessment, 178-185.

[iv]Wolters, A. (2004). Advancing achievement goal theory: Using goal structures and goal orientations to predict students’ motivation, cognition, and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 236-250.

[v]Meece, J. L., & Holt, K. (1993). A pattern analysis of students’ achievement goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 582-590.

[vi]Steinberg, L. (2007). Risk taking in adolescence: New perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 55-59.