In the modern age of online self-improvement tips and self-help books, we seem to have lost our way on some of the most basic things in life. When I say basic, I mean the things our mothers (and fathers) have been telling us for as long as we can remember. Now, I know that not everybody’s parents are clinicians, psychologists and self help gurus. And furthermore, we all know that our parents didn’t walk three miles to school, both ways, in the snow, without shoes.
But I think that it is pretty safe to say that some of the folk wisdom handed down from generation to generation was handed down for a reason. It was useful and it made sense. Moreover, much of it has now been shown to be scientifically sound. So maybe it’s time we turn off our smart phones and tablets and get our information the old fashioned way— by asking our mothers (and fathers). So here are some of my favorite gems of conventional wisdom.
Do it until it’s done.
It turns out to be true that those of us that show the best task persistence actually do better in many areas of life. I often hear my own kids asking, “How much longer do I have to do this for? How long do I have to study? How long do I have to clean my room for? Now I think back to my fairly stress free childhood, and I know that I had it easy compared to many others of my generation and before, but I remember this: “You do it until you are finished.” That might be one hour. That might be 10 hours. But you are finished when the job is done.
It turns out that task persistence matters. So do your best and finish a job. And when you get to the point when you think you can’t do any more, think again and go try some more.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, does a beautiful job of making this point. In one chapter in which he discusses why some people do better than others at mathematics, he goes into our attitudes towards mathematics. Those who give up and say “I can’t do this. I need you to show me how” not surprisingly don’t do as well at mathematics as those who say “I can’t do this yet. I need to take a different approach”.
Gladwell goes on to describe the TIMSS test, in which every four years an international group of educators administer a comprehensive mathematics test to elementary and junior high school students around the world. Before the students sit the exam, they fill in a questionnaire which asks them all kinds of questions relating to, for example, their parents’ level of education, who their friends are, and so on. This is a tedious and demanding questionnaire. In fact it is so tedious that many students leave as many as 10-20 questions blank. The average number of questions answered varies from country to country. But here is the interesting part. The number of questions answered on the questionnaire correlates perfectly with the number of questions answered correctly on the actual TIMSS exam. In other words, those who persisted in answering the questionnaire questions also persisted in “figuring out” the maths questions and did better on the mathematics exam as a direct result. So if you do a thing until it is done, you will do much better on mathematics exams, but also in other arenas of life.
It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
Being nice costs you nothing. But not being nice is costing us all dearly. There are lots of different iterations of this piece of advice, but it basically comes down to having respect for people. Again, in our fast paced modern lives, we are often so busy that we forget to be nice. This might be shocking to a generation gone before us, but it is true for many of us today. And we hand this attitude right down to our own kids and then we are surprised to hear that bullying is on the rise, in the schools, in the workplace and even in old people’s homes.
Why are we surprised? It seems to me that what has happened here is that people have forgotten the importance of being nice and that has trickled into every institution we are part of. School systems and other organizations are now required by law to have a “policy on bullying” and a “code of conduct”. Why? Because we are all forgetting to be nice to such a degree that it is psychologically damaging to those around us. One American study on the Kansas School System (see Kansas Communities That Care Survey) found that 60 percent of students reported being bullied.
Teachers in those same schools estimated that approximately 16 percent of those students were being bullied. That’s quite a discrepancy between what is happening and what teachers are aware of. Some further interesting statistics on bullying include that a child is bullied every 7 seconds and that 20-30 percent of school age children are involved in bullying incidents, as either the bully or the victim. Finally, researchers also report that 60 percent of those characterized as bullies in grades 6-9 had a least one criminal conviction by the age of 24. So what has happened here? We are forgetting to be nice. We are so caught up in being important, being popular and getting ahead (in the school yard and the work place) that we have completely forgotten to be nice. This “forgetting” has long term implications for all parties involved.
Education is no burden to carry.
Doing well in school predicts how well you will do in life. While this piece of advice likely brings to mind the wonderful work of author and film maker, Dionne Brand, this is advice that is not just for women and not just for black women. My parents used to say when I was going to school, “Study hard. Learn a lot”. So while perhaps this is less eloquent than Education is no burden to carry, in many ways, it makes the same point. The more you know, the farther you’ll go. The better we educate ourselves, our children, our society, the more opportunities we will have.
When you are a child and looking out the window of your classroom on a sunny day, it might feel like school and studying are a burden. But the fact of the matter is that doing well in school predicts how well you will do in life. The longer you stay in school, the higher your intellectual skills will be. Research has shown that people who score well on IQ tests have more successful jobs, earn more money, and are even happier and healthier. So while we all know examples of famous and successful people who did well in life, we should remember that these are exceptions to the rule, they are not the norm. For most of us, if you get your head down and work hard in school, you will have a more successful life and you will be happier and healthier too. So education is not a burden. It is a path to success.
Never go anywhere without a good book.
It has been shown in a number of studies that people who read a lot have better developed vocabularies and perform better on cognitive tasks (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). The pioneering work of Todd Risley and colleagues has shown us that exposure to a greater number of words through speech and reading has major implications for increasing your later life’s success. Also, on a practical note, you never know when you are going to be stuck in a queue at the bank or doctors office so in the spirit of modern day multi-tasking, let’s use that time to our advantage. In fact, go one step further—enjoy that time!
Don’t look for love in a bar. Look for love in a library.
Ok, so this one is probably not one you have heard before. In fact, the only mother I ever knew who imparted this wisdom was my own. Being a librarian herself, it would only have made sense to her to take someone seriously if you knew that they were interested in learning and books. But this advice actually makes sense on a number of levels, and not just for book lovers. In days of yore in the Western world, and also in some modern non-Western cultures, marriages were arranged based on what would best serve each family and people only married those people that were acceptable and accepted by their individual families and within their own social structure. People who got married came from similar cultures with similar value systems and you know what? More often than not, these marriages worked.
So now with all our new fangled notions of romance and freedom, and with all the choice that comes with that, we find ourselves in the modern world of more complex and cosmopolitan marriages, many of which could certainly not be called traditional. So we have now got a lot of choice and people are not compelled to doing what culture, society or religion has dictated. For the most part this is a good thing, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a problem with this modern and advanced system too. We have moved so far away from where we have come, that we don’t know what the value system is anymore. This is the problem. One way to counteract this new system full of choice, surprises, and different ways of thinking is to seek out people with shared interests and values. So whether that might be at the tennis club, the church or the library, it seems that seeking out a partner who shares your passions and ideals is a good idea. Another good idea is to avoid being inebriated when you make these important decisions!
Don’t make such a song and dance about everything.
The way we interpret a problem influences how we deal with it. This adage might be a useful tip for parents or teachers who are tired of hearing everything little thing that happened, every wrongful accusation and every crime done unto their little ones. Of course, it should be remembered that kids need to vent their woes and they need someone to listen to them. They need to know that how they think and feel about things matters. But here’s the kicker, the way we interpret an event influences how we go forward.
How do some people face severe adversity and trauma and come through to the other side as successful and productive human beings? It definitely has to do with how resilient that person is, but it probably also has something to do with the way they interpreted the situation in the first place. It has to do with how they “told their story” and if they made the trauma/adversity the central feature of the rest of their lives’ story then they can remain stuck there and cannot move on. If, on the other hand, the trauma was only one part of a greater life story and if it was interpreted as a “mountain I must climb” rather than “something I cannot accept or cannot overcome”, then it is very likely that person is still engaged with the trauma, rather than moving on to the next chapter.
Of course, I am in no way minimizing trauma or adversity. Horrible and painful things happen every day and these stories need to be told. But know this – how you write the story will dictate the next chapter. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioners view suffering as universal and report that the primary cause of human suffering is the intrusion of language into areas where it is not functional (see Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson 1999). In other words, if we “think trauma” all the time, this is not functional and it is not helpful and it will not move us forward. Rather, we can get stuck here because our mind tells us “this is trauma” and we react accordingly. So it is our interpretation of the event, rather than the event itself that causes the situation to seem unbearable. So it seems like the old adage, Don’t make such a song and dance about it, is a helpful one as it may help us to move on from difficult situations in life by reminding us not to get wrapped up in every single event in our lives.
Don’t argue with fools or drunks.
If someone is very drunk or very foolish, the chances are, they may not be making sense. So you could make some very well thought out and meaningful contributions to an argument. In fact, hands down, you could win that argument! But what difference will it make? Someone with very little intellectual capacity (whether that be related to too much alcohol or intellectual disadvantage) may not understand or remember your golden nuggets of truth. So don’t waste your time. Grab a good book instead.
We all hear about boundaries and how we need to set them for children. Rules and boundaries are useful for a number of reasons when you are working with small children, but they are also important for the parents themselves. In the 1960’s,
Psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted some research on parenting and parenting styles which is still widely considered to be of paramount importance in the parenting literature. Baumrind suggested that there are three main types of parenting. These types were authoritarian, authoritative and permissive. Macoby and Martin added a fourth type (un-involved) in 1983. Time and time again, the authoritative type of parenting has yielded the best outcomes for children in relation to academic and social and emotional success.
This is largely down to the fact that this type of parenting involves rules and guidelines to be followed, but parents continue to be warm and supportive. This type of parenting lets children know where they stand, what is expected of them and what will happen if they fail to comply, but it also models compassion, flexibility and respect. So these parents are respectful of their own children and respectful of their own needs as people too. So they are modelling the very type of behavior that they expect and in so doing, teaching their children to treat people (and rules) with respect. Because children of authoritative parents know what the rules are, they are also more likely to recognize when those same rules are being broken later on in life when they are involved in friendships, romantic relationships and when they are involved professionally with work colleagues. So these same children will have the confidence to respectfully decline to be involved with people who treat them poorly as they grow into their adult selves.
Eat your vegetables.
It turns out that eating well isn’t just about our waistline and it’s not just about physical health. Eating well can also support your brain health. It can stimulate intellectual development in a way that the fast food life style just cannot support. One study, led by Arthur Agatson (cardiologist and creator of the popular South Beach diet) has published findings (along with colleagues Hollar, Messiah, Lopez-Mitnik, T Hollar & Almon) showing that improving the nutritional quality of school meals bolstered the academic performance of students over a two year period, in addition to lowering their weight and blood pressure. Mathematics scores also improved for this group. So eating healthy is not just important for your physical health, but it is also important for your brain health and academic development.
Don’t drive there when you can walk there.
But what evidence is there that there is a connection between how much we exercise and our overall health and well being? In 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services released new guidelines surrounding physical fitness for Americans. These guidelines called for adults between the ages of 18 and 64 to exercise moderately for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes each week or to exercise vigorously for at least an hour and 15 minutes weekly. This Department reported that the longer, harder and more often you exercise, the greater the physical health benefits including decreasing risk of cancer and diabetes. Studies have shown that those who engage in the recommended amount of exercise live an average of three to seven years longer than those who do not.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people aged 50 years or older, with memory problems, scored higher on cognitive tests after a 6 month work-out regimen. This result was 20 percent higher than their sedentary peers and a 10 percent edge was still measured one year after the trial ended. Thus, exercising helps both your body and your mind.
So where does this leave us? While I don’t advise people to believe everything they hear or everything they read, it looks like lots of the stuff our parents have been telling us is actually true. And if you don’t believe me, I suggest you go ask your mother.