William James, author of the classic The
Principles of Psychology (1890), was one of those rarities, a popularizer
of his own ideas. One of his most-endearing, and useful, popular titles was Talks
to Teachers on Psychology (1899) [now in public domain, available online],
a slim volume of public lectures on psychology he gave to Cambridge (MA)
teachers in 1892. In a lecture on "Interest," he proposed a simple
way for a teacher to engage the attention of a child: "Begin with the line
of his native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate
connection with these." What sort of connections?
Fortunately, almost any kind of connection is
sufficient to carry the interest along. What a help is our Philippine war at present
in teaching geography! But before the war you could ask the children if they
ate pepper with their eggs, and where they supposed the pepper came from. Or
ask them if glass is a stone, and, if not, why not; and then let them know how
stones are formed and glass manufactured.
James was talking about finding, like Archimedes, a
simple lever to move something -- in his case, the lever of what he called a
child's "native" interests.
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is author of a number of
"how to" books for parents, including books on raising
"happy" kids, "confident" boys, and "confident"
girls. In this book, Raising a Self Starter -- Over 100 Tips for Parents and
Teachers, she sets out to provide parents with "tools and
tactics" to "help children help themselves," that is, to help
Thirteen chapters comprise the core of the book, each
chapter articulating a specific "principle" of motivation identified
by the author and providing specific suggestions for applying each principle.
The first such principle is "to start with your child: to recognize who he
is," what his interests and unique qualities are. This all seems pretty
obvious, and the other principles articulated are equally obvious. But to say
that they seem obvious is not to be critical. William James' childhood friend, Justice
Holmes, famously said, in another context, "We need education in the
obvious more than investigation of the obscure."
The main problem I have with Hartley-Brewer's
explication of the seemingly obvious "principles" of motivating
children is not that she doesn't do so creditably and in detail and with many
examples. The main problem I have is the problem I have with most, but not all,
"how to" books for parents: they seem to be written according to
formula. The formula, as I see it, is to take a few basic principles or ideas,
principles or ideas that could be articulated well in an essay or a slim
volume, and stretch them out as much as possible to fill, say, 213 pages, and
then design a paper cover that is colorful and that depicts a smiling kid and
that contains the word "tips," preferably preceded by a big number,
say, 100, in order to attract as many buyers/readers as possible.
A second problem is that the book, in my opinion, is
not as fluidly written or as easy to read as the best of the "100
tips" how-to books. Instead, the author's style, unlike, say, William
James' in his Talks to Teachers, is opaque. One typically buys a how-to
book with a cover like this one thinking the book will make difficult but
useful material easier to understand and apply. One who is willing to struggle
to understand, say, one of the earlier books by the well-known Jungian depth
psychologist, James Hillman, expects and finds a book by Hillman's lucid
popularizer, Thomas Moore, not to be a major struggle. For me at least, reading
this "how to" book was a struggle. While it might be worth the
struggle for well-educated parents greatly needing help in motivating their
kids to study and learn, reading a "how to" book shouldn't be a
© 2005 Burton Hanson
R. Hanson, of Minneapolis, MN, is a graduate of Harvard Law School with a
long-time interest not just in law but in many other subjects, including
psychology. He is the father of two adult children, both "self
starters." He may be reached by visiting his law-related weblog, http://www.lawandeverythingelse.com/,
and using the e-mail address supplied there.