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Just Plain Ann
At the end of Monday's show about rewarding students, HerOdyssey pointed out that rewards don't always have to be financial. "A little recognition goes a long way," she wrote. "Kids thrive on positive reinforcement." And Sjshiple wrote about varying ratios of positive and negative feedback that kids experience based on class:
I just read recently that middle class kids hear praise something like 70% of the time (not sure of the statistic but it was on the good side) and hear discouragement 30%. For kids at the poverty level, it's usually reversed. That says that praise and recognition are very important and we probably need to up the quantity so they're getting encouragement often.
This struck me because I'd just heard the same basic statistic — in last week's rebroadcast of a This American Life episode. The story was about the Baby College program in Harlem. As the writer Paul Tough narrated in the show:
A pair of psychologists did a close-up study of two sets of families: one group in which the parents were on welfare, and another in which the parents held professional jobs.... The kids with the professional parents heard 20 million more words in the first three years of their lives than the kids on welfare... [and] the kind of words that poor kids hear is different.... By age three, a child of professionals hears about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. A child of parents on welfare hears almost the exact opposite: just 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.
(You can listen the the whole story, which is the first half-hour of TAL's "Going Big" episode, here. And you can learn more about the study — done in Kansas City in the 1980s — in this summary of its design and conclusions.)
Remarkably, it only took a day to get a personal story illustrating the way a kind of perceived positive reinforcement deficit resonates in an individual's life. On yesterday's show with people in their 90s, 95-year-old Ann Youngman told us a story about having people ask her mother if she was an "Ann with an E" and hearing her mother say, over and over, "No, she's just plain Ann." In the afternoon I called Ann to follow up on something that came in from Peter Mortola on our blog. Peter had asked, "What were the hardest things in your life to make sense of?" I figured I'd run the question by Ann.
She immediately told me the story, once again, of being "plain Ann." But then she added a missing piece: what it meant to hear her father talk glowingly about her:
He'd say, "This kid! You should see her on a toboggan!" Or he'd say, "Well, we bought Ann her first bicycle, and you know? She was able to ride it in about 15 minutes. I held onto the back of it and wouldn't let it tip over, and she rode right away from me! And didn't even fall!" I remember that so carefully. I was maybe five years old.
Ninety years later, these words — good and bad — still ring in her head.
You can hear the follow-up (including how Ann came to realize that she wasn't plain, after all) right here (mp3).