Blog Post

What If We Stopped Teaching Kids What They Cannot Do?

A friend recently told me about her child's inspiring kindergarten teacher, a brilliant woman who had spent most of her life with five-year olds.   For a while, she moved up to first grade teaching but, she said, first graders already knew what they couldn't do.   "No kindergarten child says 'I can't draw' or "I can't sing.'   They think they can do anything.  By first grade they already know what they are good and poor at, what they can and what they cannot do."   Think about that.  Age 6 and you already have a personal score card. 


Another friend stopped by a few months ago with her very rumbunctious two-and-a-half year-old.  HASTAC's offices are in Smith Warehouse, a beautiful and ecologically-sound refurbising of an old tobacco warehouse (like a lot of Durham) into an interdisciplinary center of centers.   Outside my office is a very long carpeted corridor, with lots of dips and waves, as safe a "roller coaster" for a toddler as you're likely to find anywhere.   The child saw an amazing opportunity and was zipping all over (this happens a lot: it's a small child's fantasy of freedom, I think!) as my friend kept telling him don't do this, don't do that, don't go over there, no you can't climb on that couch.  When it came time to leave, the child threw himself on the floor and started shouting "No!  No!  I don't want to go.  I won't go."   She said, "I hate the Terrible Twos.   I'm so sick of 'no no no' all the time."   I knew I should bite my tongue but I couldn't resist pointing out that the child had just perfectly mirrored all the negatives she'd been throwing at him for the last hour.  If he had mastered 'no,' he had learned its power from a maestro. 


What if we stopped teaching kids what they cannot do?   I know that's not practical, that part of nurturing is limits, but other cultures shape by merit and reward rather than punishment and opposition.   These are not fixed categories in child nurturance, and not all cultures have "Terrible Twos."  Think about it.  Before a child walks, all we do is coax her forward, encouraging, you can do it, come on, you can, you can.   And then suddenly the child gets her sturdy legs and starts to walk and everyone claps and cheers and is all smiles . . . and then she starts to run and it's "be careful, don't go there, stop, don't go so fast, don't don't don't . . "  Talk about a moment of cognitive or even existential despair?   This vertical world is all about limits, a two year old must be thinking.  To be an adult, to be big, is to have the power to tell others what they can and cannot do.   Talk about a toddler paradigm shift!


And, sadly, much of our formal education is about standardizing exactly that shift, in teaching that kindergarten child who believes she can do absolutely anything that, no, she's a poor reader, or bad in math, or a poor speller, or a poor artist or has no musical talent (as my husband was once told when he was a child:  he got his revenge when he went on to be a DJ with the most amazing musical knowledge I've encountered and now an editor who publishes a lot of wonderful books about sound and music).   I once heard a six year old say of her sullen older brother, "he's not meeting expectations," a hilarious and tragic appropriation of Adult Speak.  No. No. No. No.  


Do I think we should automatically say everything a child does is grand and wonderful?  Not at all.   Kids see through false praise pretty quickly.  Rather, instead of defeating them either with false praise or with rigid critique, I would rather set them challenges they can meet, and then, when they do, set them greater ones.   Where the bar starts is not the issue.  The issue is allowing kids the confidence to see they can get over the bar all on their own . . . even in those things that, by conventional standards, they are not "good" at.   Learning is partly about passing the test.   It's also about having the confidence to learn, to work at, to master, and to succeed against odds.   In anything.  At any time.  At any age.


Expertise--think graduate or professional school--is like one very loud voice that we have created to certify excellence.  It's a bulwark against "no."  If you have the certificates or the badge (think Oz and the awards given to a Tin Man, a Lion, and a Scarecrow), no one can tell you that you lack a heart, courage, or a brain.   Of course, the lesson wonderful Dorothy imparts is that her three pals had those things all along.   They didn't really need the movieland equivalent of the diplomas.  But how do we get to that place, of knowing we have gifts that we've been told we lack?    How do we understand our gifts without the certificate, the diploma?   That's the challenge.  


And inspiring, gifted, visionary teachers know that power of the challenge-driven yes.   Would that we all did.   Would that we could find a way to teach that didn't depend on telling one another what we cannot do but modelled all the ways of inspiring one another to do more than we ever thought we could.



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



That's depressing to think that children so quickly label themselves. As a parent, I know it's a challenge sometimes to focus on behavior rather than attributing it to identity, but it's important. Have you read any work by Alan Kazdin? He was the 2008 president of the American Psychological Association and is director the Yale Parenting Center. He has some fascinating work on parenting that he bases on reams of actual evidence about children and their behaviors. One book is The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. I hate the title because of how it labels the children and because its insights are useful for everyone. Essentially, he argues that children crave attention, but don't differentiate between "good" and "bad" attention. So, one the parent's tasks is to seek out moments in which s/he can give positive feedback for good behavior rather than expecting that behavior to be the default. Think of how many parents respond to their children when they're acting (in the parent's eyes) poorly, yet make no comment when the child behaves well. Of course the child, being intuitively aware of cause-effect, will assume that the good behavior is not valued, while the bad behavior at least gets attention. Not that children think so consciously, but their emotions will certainly guide them that way.

The same lesson goes for teaching, as you point out. Our job is to encourage and guide, then help students learn from failure. I have a lecture/discussion coming up in my new course this semester that I'm tentatively calling "You Will Fail". Like the child who, if left to run around following its impulses, will eventually run into something, fall down, and get hurt, students need to be given room and permission to experiment, to follow wild impulses, and to fail repeatedly.


Thanks for this comment.   Yes, I do know the Defiant Child book and like it a lot (although, like you, I dislike the title and the labelling).  Interestingly, a friend on Facebook thought I was advocating either (a) not protecting one's child by setting boundaries or (b) approving everything a child does.   Actually , I intended neither of those.


Every parent has to set limits to protect a child but, if we're going to be honest, sometimes "protection" is more for our weariness than a child's actual safety.   The example I gave in Smith Warehouse was chosen carefully---it is a long, fabulous hallway with dips in it and carpeting.   Little kids love to run down it and it's pretty safe.   But my friend was trying to have an adult conversation with a rambunctious child and so insisted "safety" was the issue.  It would have been more real to say, "hey!  I haven't seen my friend since she moved over here.  You be quiet five minutes, and then we'll have a blast running over the halls."   Or, since the child was too small for that, having a preoccupying toy . . .    Whatever.  Parents don't need to be perfect but the answer-back "NO!" is because kids are pretty sharp at perceiving when we aren't being fully honest . . .   


One of my favorite stories happened at Mesa Verde, where a very athletic family of climbers was scampering over drop offs that made my head swirl and was causing even greater fear in others.   Their pre-schoolers were scampering along with these Nordic-looking parents with their very tanned, fit long muscled limbs.   When someone spoke out agains the "danger" their kids were in, the parents pounced, insisting that the kids had been well and carefully schooled in safe behavior on mountain sides.   They had no fear of their children's sensible attitude.  What they really feared was their children growing up fearful for no reason.   They argued that given the children the mental and behavior tools to make sound judgments gave them courage.   Teaching them simply to be afraid gave them fear.    Wow.  Such a big, important lesson.


Do I think we should only praise children?  Not at all.  That is as bogus as always telling them "no."   But praise for mediocrity, like telling a child they are "good" at reading and "bad" at math, is unrealistic and false.   Earned praise is what keys thrive on, including teaching them how to know the best, safest way to cross a rock bridge that makes some adults quake, dangerously and gripped by fear, on the edge. 


Thanks so much for writing, Mike.  It's a huge challenge and accomplishment, isn't it, raising kids?  


Parenting certainly is, but it's worth it. Did you see the piece in the Atlantic a while back about indiscriminate praise leading to emotional problems later in life? I find it ironic that we're now discovering that all the parenting strategies in vogue for the last 20 years and that were intended to raise "better" kids than the parenting by benign neglect that used to dominate are, in effect, harmful. It makes perfect sense, though. As you said, if we want children to grow up into courageous, secure, independent adults, then we have to let them be independent and to take chances as children, too.

I see something along these lines with many of my students, especially the ones who come to me feeling really good about their writing and reading skills. I tend to teach first and second year undergraduates, so often my course is their first taste of UT's English program. When I give them honest, hard feedback, some of them experience a mini-crisis of self-confidence. I try to shepherd them through their failures as best I can, but it's always so surprising to me when they get crushed (and I'm not at all a mean, bust-out-the-red-pen type of grader). It makes me wonder what sort of feedback they've been getting all their lives.


Right after I wrote this blog, a friend reported that his normally preternaturally angelic child had just wrecked a lovely dinner with adults by being "a terror."   That made me laugh.  Also made me realize that, of course, we don't know why kids are "terrors" sometimes.  Heartache?  Heartburn?  Bad dreams?  We don't know enough about the human body, at any stage, to understand why we have good moods one day, bad moods the next, why some days we are just all "out of sorts," as my neighbor likes to say.     But now I want to twist that.  If you are two, and feel out of sorts, you get to be a terror.    If you are an adult, you learn you have to stuff those feelings.   Well, why?  Really.  Why?   Today, I wish I could be not only out of sorts but, like my friend's toddler at dinner the other night, a terror.   Now THAT would be fun . . .