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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Outliers and A Boy Named Alex

Has anyone read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"?  He is the author of two other well-known books, "Blink" and "The Tipping Point".  I find his writing style simple and clear and always leaving me wanting to know more (in a good way).  In this posting, I want to share one part of it, a personal experience possibly related to it, and ask for your thoughts.

In a chapter titled, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2" Gladwell introduces the reader to a sociologist named Annette Lareau. She did a study of a group of third graders in which she followed 12 families ("both black and whites and children from both wealthy homes and poor homes"). After following the families at least 20 times, she concluded their were two parenting styles - 'concerted cultivation' by the middle-class parents and 'accomplishment of natural growth' by the poor parents.

'Concerted cultivation' "is an attempt to actively 'foster and assess a child's talents, opinions, and skills.' (Poor parents) see as their responsibility to care for their children but to let them grow and develop on their own. Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other.  The poorer children were, to her mind, often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence. But in practical terms, concerted cultivation has enormous advantages. The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences.  She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to." 

Gladwell then shares a story of a nine year old boy, Alex, who goes to the doctor's office and engages in a conversation with the doctor.  The boy does this based on his mother's encouragement and can "assert himself with people in positions of authority." 

"In doing so, he successfully shifts the balance of power away from the adults and toward himself....Alex is being treated with respect. He is seen as special and as a person worthy of adult attention and interest....Alex is not showing off during his checkup. He is behaving much as he does with his parents - he reasons, negotiates, and jokes with equal ease."

In my mind, Alex is demonstrating the virtue of assertiveness.  In fact, the earlier part of the chapter provides another story of someone who is intellectually gifted, but, at crucial times in his life, did not assert himself.  Gladwell could have titled this chapter 'Assertiveness and Its Consequences'.

This reminded me of my experience while visiting an elementary school in the US.  The school served a population that was generally poor and I was astounded by the rigidity of the rules, especially hallway rules.  For example, when leaving a classroom, students had to line up, single-file and, depending on which direction they were going, walk single-file along one side or the other of the hallway.  I recalled my own experience as a student between classes in the hallway as being controlled chaos.  Were the students in this elementary school learning about authority?  Were they learning about their relationship with authority?  I also asked myself, what were they learning about their own ability to self-discipline?

So, I leave you with this...did your parents use either of the two parenting styles mentioned above?  Lastly, how was your school environment structured - what did it teach you about authority and assertiveness?

1 comment:

Leif Nabil said...

It was a mix of both for me. My parents advocated for me to have valuable educational experiences and sometimes walked along with me in my academics. But they were often hands-off when they were more focussed on their own affairs.

My primary and secondary schooling taught me how to squeeze by and only focus what I found immediately gratifying.

My concept of authority and my assertiveness wouldn't be developed until after college when I did so by my own choice.