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The Boy and The Girl have returned to their respective campuses for the spring. TB is in his last semester of college, which happened inexplicably fast; TG is in her first year. After TB returned to campus, TW mentioned that this is probably the last time he’ll be home for more than a few days. She’s right. I had to take a long pause after that one.

In the few days before TG returned to campus, she and I had some long, lovely conversations about whatever she wanted to talk about. It was her characteristic mix of Taylor Swift, politics, Hozier lyrics and whatever else came to mind. In the middle of one conversation, though, she offered an unsolicited compliment that hit home:

“I was talking with [friend], and I realized that you have a way of correcting false information without making me feel stupid.”

I thanked her, of course. It meant a lot to me. It was a conscious choice made over and over again through the years.

Some of that approach dates back to the teacher training the Rutgers English department put me through. I don’t know if Rutgers still does this, but in the ’90s, graduate students from various disciplines outside English were drafted into duty teaching English Comp to keep their teaching assistantships. To its credit, the English department realized that folks coming from sociology or history or poli sci might or might not know how to teach writing, so they put us through a pedagogical boot camp that lasted several days.

The “aha!” moment for me came when the professor running one session commented that it’s easy to make the mistake of copy-editing student papers. I raised an eyebrow. He suggested that instead of simply circling every mistake, which can lead students either to fix them robotically and not learn it or just shut down completely, we should identify patterns of error and address one or two at a time. Otherwise, the barrage of criticisms and corrections would be so demoralizing that the students wouldn’t actually improve.

I won’t say I’ve always lived up to that, but the principle seemed right. The point wasn’t to make the paper perfect; the point was to help students improve their writing. That sometimes required choosing not to point out certain mistakes, at least at first. And when mistakes happened commonly, correcting them required understanding the logic behind them. If you could figure out why the student made the same mistake over and over again, you might be able to help the student figure out how not to.

When I became a parent, I wanted to apply the same logic. Too much correction can cause kids either to shut down or to comply resentfully without ever buying the reasoning. They need room to figure things out. Reserving the “negative imperative” for real emergencies (“Don’t stick the fork in the toaster!”) preserved its power. The task for the parent was setting up an environment in which they’d have plenty of positive examples and enough room for low-downside risks.

It’s a difficult approach, particularly at first, because it requires so much thinking ahead. And it occasionally created awkward moments when other parents had arbitrarily strict rules for their kids that we just didn’t. TB or TG would hear about a friend’s house rules and be visibly confused. Honestly, sometimes I’d be confused, too.

When TG mentioned that she didn’t feel belittled by factual corrections, it was validating. No parent gets it right all the time, but getting some big things right still matters. She’s unafraid to jump into research or projects without knowing first how they’ll turn out; she’s confident that she’ll figure it out, and she’s right. Errors happen, and they can be fixed. As compliments go, I’ll take it.

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