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Teaching Your Kids: We Go Towards Our Focus, for Good or Bad

So, having the curiosity to learn is part of the battle. Knowing how to learn—and how not to learn—is another. And this next story will illustrate one of the simplest but most powerful lessons I've ever learned about how to learn.

And the whole story is about a six-year-old girl named Audrey. When she was in the first grade, her family moved from Italy to the United States when her father, Stefano, got a new job. Well, not long after they arrived, it was time for Audrey to learn to ride a bike. And the wide-open front yard of Audrey's new school was the perfect place to do it. It was a lush, green lawn that stretched out flat for dozens of yards in all directions, with nothing to get in her way. Nothing, that is, except for one thing: the flagpole.

So, Stefano took off the training wheels, saddled his girl onto her little pink bike, and gave her all the expected instructions: "Keep pedaling, lean into a turn, and whatever you do, don't run into that flagpole." Then he gave her a gentle push, and off she went, keeping an eye, of course, on the flagpole. Well, she made it a few turns of the pedals before her first stop. Dad was right there and got her started again. This time she got in a few more pedals, and there were a few more shouts of encouragement from Dad before she stopped again.

And as anyone who's ever taught children to ride a bike knows, the direction you push them has little to do with the direction they end up going. Each wobble reorients the bike as they lean into their fall to make sure they don't fall over.

And then finally, with a big push, Audrey was doing it, pedaling all on her own, hands on the handlebars, and eyes on the flagpole. Stefano was beaming like any proud parent would as he saw his little girl riding a bike all on her own, for the first time. But with just a few more wobbles, Audrey was getting closer and closer to the flagpole. So, Stefano managed to get out one last shout, "Don't hit the flagpole!" right before his little girl took her last wobble-righting turn and ran straight into, you guessed it... the flagpole. She literally had 359 degrees of freedom to ride her bike wherever she wanted, and somehow she ended up on a path that led her to the only three-inch-wide obstruction on the entire field.

Now, what are the odds of that happening? Actually, it turns out, they're pretty high. People tend to go toward their focus. Most of us know if you tell a child not to put a shiny quarter in their mouth, that's the first place it'll go. And that's exactly what happened to Audrey. Her father told her, "Don't hit the flagpole." So that's what she was focusing on the whole time—the flagpole. And since we go toward our focus, that's exactly where she ended up.

Psychologists call it target fixation. When you become so fixated on an object, whether it's a target or a hazard, you increase your odds of colliding with it. Just like Audrey did.

So, focus your child on what to do instead of what not to do. For Audrey, that might have been, "Ride your bike anywhere on this side of the yard." Or for the kid with the shiny quarter, it would be "put this in your pocket." I even heard of a company that had a leaky drainpipe in the ceiling and put a sign in the hallway near the leak that said "Don't look up" so that people wouldn't get dirty water in the eyes. And of course, what did everyone do when they got to the sign? Looked up, of course, to see what it was they weren't supposed to look at. Better might have been a sign that said, "Eyes forward" or something like that.

The point is, when trying to teach your kids, direct their attention and focus on the right thing to do instead of the wrong thing to avoid. You'll have better success.

Until then, try sharing this story with your kids and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Do you think Louise-Audrey would have hit the flagpole if her dad had never told her, "Don't hit the flagpole"?

  2. What kind of negative things do you spend time focusing on?

  3. What would be the positive alternative to those things to focus on instead?

  4. Can you think of an example where focusing on a negative will actually help you?

Okay, in the next lesson, we'll talk about how to keep your teenagers from stressing too much over college decisions.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith