Of course, you want your children to succeed in school. You do all you can to manage getting their best. But what really is your job? Is it to insure good grades, getting involved in the right sports and extra-curriculars, and diligently doing their homework? If so how involved do you get? And what do you do if they don’t meet your expectations?
Do you know that all your best intentions can undermine your child’s school success and desire to learn?
Children are natural learners. We come evolved to soak up all the learning we can — until it becomes a requirement. Remember when your toddler kept asking you why? until you wanted to scream? How is she doing now in the curiosity department?
Here are four key aspects to help you help your children succeed in school:
1. Stay Out of It
This makes parenting so much easier, gives you more time for connection, and hands over the responsibility they need to learn. But it’s hard give up managing your kids’ school lives and work, especially if your definition of success isn’t happening.
How did you do in school? If school was your source of competency, then you want your kids to experience the same and will possibly set unrealistic expectations for them that worked for you. If school was difficult for you, you want to save your children from that fate. In either case, you will impose your own school experience onto your kids. It’s all you have. Unless you stay out of it.
The way our system works, most kids think their school success is for you or their teachers — or their failure is your disappointment. Your approval is based on how well they perform. It’s not about them; it’s about you. When you take responsibility for their school progress, then everything they do becomes a reflection of how well you are doing. Your child’s grade becomes your grade.
The best way to kill your child’s love of learning and natural curiosity is to impose your will on how and what he does. Do you nag about homework because you fear he wouldn’t do it unless you make him? Do you use rewards and threats to insure good grades? When you oversee homework and grades, you child becomes dependent on that. He doesn’t have to take responsibility for his homework because you do.
Research has shown that intrinsic motivation, love of learning, is undermined by external rewards and punishments. In study after study, children who are rewarded for accomplishing tasks, accomplish way less than those not rewarded.
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure — and upcoming speaker at Conval High School Oct. 23rd — says, “Applying pressure in the form of control is the single most damaging thing parents and teachers can do to their children’s learning. Whether in the form of threats, bribes, deals, surveillance, imposed goals, evaluations, or even rewards and praise, control is the enemy of autonomy.”
When the focus is on achievement and grades, natural curiosity dries up. When kids are force fed learning, it is no longer fun to learn.
2. Let Your Children Fail
Resilience is built from tough times. When kids are pampered, have the path in front of them smoothed regularly, they lose ambition and come to expect someone else to manage their difficulties.
What do you do when your child complains about a grade she gets that seems terribly unfair? Do you call the teacher, or do you ask your child what she wants to do about it? If homework is not finished, do you take away computer privileges, blame it on irresponsibility, threaten to restrict social time, fight until she tells you she can’t stand living in this family anymore? Or do you allow her to experience the natural consequences of not handing homework in on time or not studying for a test? And without an I-told-you-so attitude.
If your child is controlled by threats and punishments, she will lose faith in herself and stop trying. Then you are even more tempted to use control tactics, the cycle spins, and she becomes less and less motivated. Maintaining your control over your child actually shields her from the far more powerful teaching of natural consequences. Building resilience is put at risk.
Paving the way for a child having a hard time in school, doing most of his homework, giving money for good grades is not supporting your child. Hearing his frustration over grades or teachers’ criticisms, acknowledging his efforts, and using problem solving to help him figure out how he wants to handle situations is supportive.
Fighting over grades, homework, and test scores sends the message that his worth is measured by his accomplishments rather than by his effort and character. The external carrot or stick only prods when you are there to do the prodding.
Talk about what your kids are studying at the dinner table, share your ideas about the subject, show interest in what they’re learning, look up related information together online. Your interest is motivating, your criticism, hovering, or lack of interest is not.
If your child is falling behind in school, spend time and energy understanding why. This requires trusting communication, so he feels safe being totally honest with you. Is the school environment the right fit for him? Are social relationships at risk? Does your child feel disrespected by certain teachers? Does he worry he can’t keep up with the class? Once you get to the bottom of it, then you can problem solve with him to determine what would be most helpful.
When you take responsibility for the problem your child is having, success or failure is up to you. When you listen and problem solve, your child can work it through with you to find solutions. But take his lead. You can make suggestions and offer your opinions but always ask if this would work for him. This is true support.
Each of your children is different. Each requires different expectations. Your support requires understanding what each child needs and never comparing them.
It is important to hand over your children’s education to them; put them in charge. When they sense your trust, and your expectations are set for their success, they are more likely to rise to the challenge education presents and feel proud of themselves with every accomplishment.
4. Set Goals
Planning ahead is a skill everyone needs. It provides additional focus on what your child wants and thinks about. Telling a child what to do leaves her feeling powerless and provokes resistance. Asking what she wants to do about it, what her plan is, encourages thinking ahead and builds executive functioning and competence.
Try asking your kids what they want to accomplish this school year, what each hopes to gain. Ask your child if she were to overhear her teacher talking about her in the hallway, what would she like to hear. Then ask how she thinks she can accomplish that. Talking about goals with your kids keeps the focus under their control, not yours. When you tell them what you want them to accomplish, they become pawns under your control. Be prepared for either obstinance or compliance — compliance that brings with it mediocrity.
When your expectations focus on everyone doing their best, and when education is important to your family, your children know it. But make sure what you want for each of them matches what they are capable of with a short stretch beyond. When your expectations are unrealistic and set by external controls, your child will believe she can’t meet up, she’s not good enough, she’ll never be who you want her to be.
Imagination, ingenuity, and brilliance means taking risks and making lots of mistakes. It may mean doing poorly in one subject so attention can be paid where there is stimulation. If no stimulation is present in school, talk about where else it can be found.
Make sure your kids know you care far more about their efforts and desire to learn and grow than you do about grades. Your goals for them should be each finding their potential. Your goals for you should be sitting back, supporting, and watching in awe as their minds take off.