How Can I Help My Child?
How Can I Help My Child?
The Rev. Chris Duncan
Rector, St. James Episcopal
Having participated in countless parent/teacher conferences over the years, well-meaning parents consistently ask the question, “What can I do to help my child?”
We, as parents, truly do want the very best for them. This is why we make sacrifices in order to provide an education for our children that is better than the one we received, and this is why we ask tough questions of our child’s teachers, and why we are so disappointed when they experience failure.
I can remember trying to teach my daughter how to ride her bike. It was nothing like the scenes from TV shows and movies where the child swerves a little, mom follows, holding on to the seat of the bike and running like a gazelle behind her, anticipation, hope, and smiles all around. Mom lets go and ZOOM, little Sally is off and biking around. Little Sally looks over her shoulder and sees mom—waving with a tear in her eye, full of pride and joy over a job well done.
For us, the experience involved sweat, tears, a little blood, lots of frustration, and culminated with a pulled back muscle. She never really wanted to ride a bike, and I realized in that moment that my kid had no grit. No idea of perseverance. She had never struggled—WITH ANYTHING. I’d always been there to unscrew the sippy-cup; to carry the bags; to unbuckle the carseat; to supply an engaging activity, you get the idea. I was always ready to swoop in and to make things easier or more fun for her. Because, after all, who wants to see their child struggle, or if I’m being honest, to hear the whines of “Mom, I can't..." or “Mom, I’m bored!”
I’d seen this in my classroom, of course. The students who would look at me with blank faces if they didn't know how to solve a problem (and I don’t mean a math problem). The students who had trouble internalizing routines, structure, and procedures. Who didn’t know what to do when they finished a task. Or my personal favorite, “Mrs. Ray, my pencil broke…what do I do?” They get stuck. And often times we (the parents) are the reason. I know this because I did it with my own children and it is becoming a problem that is systemic across our culture, community, and country.
As a teacher, my classroom was rich with procedures, protocols, and structure. I encouraged problem solving and independence. But when I had my own children, I fell into the patterns I had complained about from the parents of some of my students.
I became THAT mom.
- Let me tie your shoe.
- Let me open the door.
- Let me buckle you in.
- Let me turn on the TV.
- Let me clean your plate.
- Let me pick up your room.
- You don’t want to walk, let me carry you.
- My baby just doesn’t like vegetables, or math, or cleaning her room.
- You don’t have your homework, let me email the teacher to get the assignment.
- Just let me do it for you…because it is easier and faster for me to and I know it will get done right and I won’t have to explain why/how/when…yada, yada, yada.
Man, was I wrong.
I never saw it in my own kids or in my own parenting style. Call me a hypocrite, but I’d expect things from my students—things of which I KNEW they were capable, that I would NEVER expect of my own children.
As a teacher, I expected my students to clean up after a messy project. I refused to answer the “my pencil broke, what do I do?” question. Even with my first graders, problem solving and independence were encouraged. I would NEVER dream of swooping in to solve their problems. I knew it was too important for them to learn to do it themselves. But with my own children, it just never even occurred to me. As a parent, it is so hard to see your baby (because let’s face it, they will ALWAYS be our babies) struggle, or cry, or be disappointed. But it is vital to their success in life for them to experience those frustrating and challenging situations and to develop their own solutions to them.
When you are learning to be a teacher, you often hear that the students should be the hardest working people in the classroom and if you, the teacher, are working harder than your students, then they aren’t taking ownership of their learning. My question for us, as parents, is what does that philosophy look like at home? Are you working harder than your child at things he/she is capable of doing? Do you know what those things are? I can tell you that nothing will help your child succeed more in life than fostering independence, developing grit and perseverance, and learning to create and imagine.
I get asked all the time, “What can I do to help my child succeed/pay attention/be respectful/be more responsible/etc.?”
Here are a few things you can do TODAY:
1. Turn off the TV/iPad/computer and talk to your child.
While technology is the future, and St. James Episcopal Day School is a technology rich environment, THERE HAS GOT TO BE A BALANCE! We work hard to ensure that when our students are engaging with technology that it is a meaningful experience and one that transforms learning—it isn’t busy work or a babysitter. For more information on our approach to technology, check out this article on the SAMR model.
I cringe every time I see very young children, sometimes still in diapers, looking at videos on their parents phone, instead of engaging with the family. However, I also have learned not to judge too harshly because we’ve all had those days when we must get whatever the task is done, or need a few seconds to ourselves, or need to talk with our partner uninterrupted.
That being said, please talk with your children when riding in the car or waiting at a restaurant. Don't be so quick to turn on the video screens attached to the back of your headrest or to hand them your iPhone to look at funny videos and pictures. Talk with them, engage them, or practice math facts with them (Goodness knows, I could do better with this)! Ask them about their friends and their teachers, talk to them about a problem you are having at work and listen to their advice, ask them about what they ate for lunch, and ask about their day. TALK WITH YOUR CHILDREN.
And then DON'T.
Teach them that sometimes adults get to talk alone. That they cannot ALWAYS be the center of attention. Show them that you love them all the time and then show them that you love others, too, and that other people are important in your life. Have alone time, grown up time, and family time.
2. Make them wait.
In our world of instant gratification we have all lost the ability to wait, to be patient. My kids don't understand when I tell them that the show they want to watch on Saturday mornings isn’t “on” right now. That blows their minds because everything in our world is now ON DEMAND. You want to watch an 80s cartoon? We can probably find that on Amazon Prime. You want pizza and Dad wants sushi? Let’s just Waitr or Uber that right on over. We can zip in and out to get prescriptions, food, dry cleaning, etc. Our world is convenient and that is capital G, GREAT. But the cost is a collective loss of patience in our culture.
So provide opportunities for your children to wait. Have grown up time in the evenings and don’t let them interrupt you. When I was teaching reading, in first grade, I would conduct reading groups. I trained my students to work out issues and solve problems so that I could give my reading group the attention they deserved. And you know what? I never lost a child, no one ever died, and no one ever got in a fist fight, or felt unappreciated. It was quite the contrary, they learned that other people were important, they learned to wait, and they learned to prioritize.
If we started telling our kids, “Mommy and Daddy need to talk for a few minutes, and you are going to have to wait.” If, while we waited at a restaurant for our food to arrive, we didn’t provide them a distraction. Would the world end? Would Little Johnny throw his crayons across the restaurant? Would he feel unloved or unimportant? No, but over time, he would learn patience.
3. Let them get bored.
Let’s face it. We all hate to be bored. This is the reason we all pick up our smartphones when a commercial (Heaven forbid we haven’t recorded something on TV so that we can fast forward!) comes on. We are uncomfortable when not engaged at the highest level at all times. When children are bored (read, their parents are not actively supplying them with entertainment or organized activities) their creativity comes out. When we don’t hand them a device to hold their attention and to squelch the dreaded, “I”m bored!” comment, they get to be children. They may fight with their sibling, make a mess, or get hurt, but at the same time, they’re engaging in opportunities to problem solve, learn consequences for actions, and experience cause and effect. And all of those things are okay. It is a sad day when children no longer participate in imaginative play because we have taken this from them by supplying the entertainment and activities for them.
Let them get bored. Let them figure out and discover the world around them.
4.Give them chores.
Besides helping the family, doing chores will help children learn that not everything is fun and entertaining. They will grumble and complain, but they will learn that certain things have to be done in order to make the family home run smoothly. Full disclosure, we have a lady who cleans our home and the very first time I told my daughter to pick up and she said with a whine, “Why?!?! Isn’t Mrs. Smith coming to clean?” I knew I had failed in this area. My husband can talk at length on this topic, but I digress.
Even the youngest children can engage in activities that help out the family. A few elementary appropriate chores include:
- Bring dirty clothes to the laundry room
- Put away clean clothes
- They really can do this! Have you ever seen Kindergartners pick up a math center? Trust me, they can sort socks, underwear, shirts, and pants.
- Clear their dinner area.
- They do it every day at school. Make it a habit in your home.
- Clean up their rooms
- Sweep, mop, and vacuum
- Take out the trash
- Fix a simple meal
- Feed or walk the family pet
And now, the MOST important tip…
5. Don’t be afraid to let them make mistakes and to experience failure.
Sometimes a bad grade on a test or a conduct mark because they forgot to do their homework, is the best possible lesson. That C on the latest math test may be a blessing in disguise. For many students experiencing the feeling of not doing well on a test is enough to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Parents rob their children of that experience when they petition the teacher to change the grade to avoid feelings of disappointment in their child.
Give them opportunities to practice owning their personal choices and missteps. If your first inclination is to email the teacher when you see a bad grade/conduct mark/they don’t have their homework written down or with them at home/etc., take a step back and give your child the opportunity to talk about his/her contribution to the issue. Don’t swoop in to “fix” the situation. Let them fail. Yes, there it is, I said it. I’d much rather my child experience failure and disappointment in a safe space, like St. James, than later on when the stakes are higher.
In fact, as I was writing the above paragraph, a very well meaning mom came into the office with her son’s binder that he had forgotten at home. She was having an argument with herself about whether or not to give him the binder. “If I give it to him, will he ever learn not to leave it at home? If I don’t, will he feel bad about it? Maybe he will trust me more if I give it to him? Will he get in trouble or not have what he needs to learn?” she asked herself out loud. In the end, she decided to use this as an opportunity to teach him that even when you make mistakes, and perhaps receive a consequence, life goes on. She planned to talk with him, that afternoon on the way home. We talked about helping him to make a checklist of all the things he needs to think about before they leave for school each morning. Had she dropped the binder off to him, she would have robbed her son of this opportunity to grow. I am VERY proud of you, you know who you are!
Our children are our most precious gifts. We want them to be successful at everything they do. And ultimately, most of them will be—especially if we give them the space and the opportunities to learn, to fail, and to grow.
For more information on how we, as parents, can support independence and problem solving check out these resources: