Columns for September 2012
With the advent of a new school year, it seems appropriate to tackle the issue of homework: more specifically, the question of how involved parents should be and how parents can limit their involvement to only what is necessary.
As for the question of how involved parents should be, my unequivocal answer is “not much, if at all.” I am a member of the last generation of kids to do their own homework. We had to because our parents simply expected it of us. Furthermore, I distinctly remember teachers telling us that if there was evidence of parental help on an assignment , it would be graded down. Apparently, those adults knew that accepting personal responsibility would carry one further in life than mere good grades.
By and large, today’s parents are enmeshed, entangled and enmired in their children’s homework. The result may be better grades (in the short run, as long as the parent in question maintains his or her involvement), but the weakening of personal responsibility. When, I ask, are administrators, parents, and teachers going to get it? Over the past forty or so years, student achievement has been going down as parental involvement has been going up.
I have been a contrarian voice concerning this issue for a long time. During said long time, I have met many, many parents who have extracted themselves from their children’s homework and successfully resisted peer and school pressure to become re-involved. To a person, they testify that after a period of adjustment of anywhere from a month to a grading period, their children began doing better than ever in school. This should not surprise. For one thing, the child who knows that his parents are not orchestrating his homework chores will pay better attention in class.
For those parents who are enmeshed, entangled, and enmired and want to experience the joys of homework liberation as well as the immense pleasure of watching a child accept responsibility and perform better as a consequence, my advice is three-fold:
First, assign said child his or her very own personal homework place, preferably in his or her very own personal bedroom. That assignment goes a long way toward sending the message “Your homework is indeed YOUR homework.”
Second, stand at the ready to serve as a consultant, but set a limit. You might, for instance, make a rule that you will provide assistance on three occasions per evening and that no such occasion can last longer than five minutes. Suggest to your child that he do all that he can do on his own and then bring the three most vexing homework problems to you. If my experience serves me well, within three months your child will be bringing no more than one problem to you per evening. In the process, he will have discovered that he’s far more capable than he thought he was!
Third, set a limit on how late your child can work on homework. Having to put homework away, whether finished or not, at a certain time will force your child to begin managing his time more efficiently-yet another important life skill.
Begin enjoying the many fruits of retro-parenting!
Problems that are not Problems
I estimate that one-fourth of the questions parents ask me involve issues or behaviors that merit little if any concern. Some of the “problems” in question are normal to certain stages of development. Others are nothing more than little glitches that will resolve themselves in time (and might develop into real problems if people respond to them as such). And some are reflections of personality (or temperament), which is inborn and therefore fairly fixed, although not immutable. These include things like shyness, which most shy people figure out how to successfully compensate for by early adulthood. Here’s a short list of things parents needn’t worry themselves about:
Preschool children who have imaginary friends, even if the child in question seems to believe the friend is real. These inventions, which typically appear during the third or fourth years of life, are nothing more than the product of a young child’s rapidly developing imagination. I almost always recommend that parents play along with these additions to the family. After all, the child with an imaginary friend is going to occupy himself better and ask for a lot less parental attention than would otherwise be the case. That’s a win-win!
Tantrums during early to middle toddlerhood, even when the child seems to be completely out of control (“He acts crazy!”). At this age, tantrums are an expression of a child’s reluctance to accept that he isn’t the Grand Poobah. Granted, parents should definitely not give in to them, and it might be a good idea to assign (or take) the child to his room until the storm passes, but in and of themselves, tantrums at this age are nothing to get in a tizzy about.
Thumb-sucking. Early on, some kids figure out how to self-calm by sucking their thumbs; some don’t. I’ve never figured out a reliable way of getting a thumb-sucking child to stop, but I have found that when parents try to force a child to stop, the usual result is an increase in thumbsucking. As for dental problems, nearly all kids are going to have to have braces, whether they suck their thumbs or not.
Night terrors. These are to be distinguished from nightmares, which cause children to wake up. Night terrors occur when a child seems to get stuck in a hallucinatory state between sleeping and waking. They are not reflective of psychological problems, but they can be quite anxiety-arousing for parents. When one occurs, don’t wake the child abruptly. Just prevent him from hurting himself, hold him (unless he refuses to be held), talk soothingly, and wait for it to pass.
The child is obviously no more than run-of-the-mill in the IQ department. So? Have you ever been to a high school reunion? If so, you surely noticed that a good number of folks who were not especially good students have managed to hold decent jobs, pay their bills, stay married to one person, raise well-behaved children, and develop interesting hobbies. Why, more than a few successful people (however one defines successful) never even went to college! Did you know that president Harry Truman did not have a college degree?
One of the greatest ironies of our time: Today’s women have inherited from their mothers the freedom to claim authority in the military, corporations, churches, the professions, politics, and higher education, but have been persuaded, largely by their own gender, to all but completely abdicate their authority over their children.
Sixty years ago this month, I entered first grade in Charleston, SC. The class picture shows fifty children. There are no names under the picture save the teacher’s, so I only know that fifty kids showed up the day the photo was taken. I am certain that my first grade teacher had fewer problems out of us during the entire school year than today’s first grade teacher, with half the number of students and an aide, is having during the first week or two of any given school year. Oh, and by the way, most of us early baby boomers came to grade one not knowing our ABCs, yet by the end of that first school year we were outperforming today’s kids (most of whom learn their ABCs at age 3 and have started reading by the time they enter first grade) in every subject. And we continued to do so through college. And our parents did not give us regular help with our homework!
The reason we learned so effectively within such “overcrowded” (and “underfunded”) conditions is simple: We came to school having already learned that women possess a natural authority. We had already learned that when a woman said “this is the way it’s going to be,” that was the way it was going to be. Period. Today’s kids do not come to school with these same understandings, and that, not IQ, is what defines a successful student.
Sixty years ago, the American child was afraid of his mother. Oh, and by the way, all the statistics clearly indicate that child mental health was a whole lot better back then than it is now. Being afraid of one’s mother (while at the same time secure in her unconditional love) is a good thing for both parties, but especially the child.
Being afraid of one’s mother has nothing to do with spanking, by the way. My mother (a single parent during most of my early years) never spanked. I don’t even remember her yelling. And yet, I was afraid of her. All she needed to do was look at me a certain way and my spine began tingling.
All too many of today’s mothers are afraid of their children. They are intimidated by their children’s tantrums, disrespect, disobedience, petulance, and so on. I submit that this, not any other “liberation” issue, is the biggest problem facing women today.
Women once wore their authority over their children like it was the most natural of habits. They no longer do. When they talk to their kids, they bend over, grab their knees, and look like they’re petitioning the king for a favor. And they sound like it too!
“Billy, how about helping Mommy pick up these toys before the real estate agent gets over here, okay? Do you think you can help me with that like a big boy? How about if we do it together, and while we pick them up we can sing the “I’m Helping Mommy’ song!”
And then this same mother complains that her son doesn’t obey her. Fancy that!
It’s high time America’s mothers reclaimed the authority their grandmothers had over their children. They can start by giving instructions in ten words or less, as in “It’s time for you to pick up these toys, now.” And then, to the inevitable question, saying “Because I said so, that’s why.”
Character vs Scores
Driving in southern California recently, listening to talk radio, I heard a commercial for a Christian private school. The spokesperson went on and on about their very high test scores, the very high percentage of their students who go to top-rated universities, and other very high academic statistics. Send your child to Veryhighscore Academy! We will bring out the best in your child!
Really? I was amazed that in the commercial, the word “character” was not mentioned once. It was all about grades, test scores, scholarships, and the like, reflecting and exploiting the obsession today’s parents have with this trivia.
“Trivia? Hello? Are you hopelessly stuck in the past, John, or what? Don’t you realize how important it is for a kid to get into the right school? Why, everything hinges on what college one gets into!”
No it doesn’t. A poll of top executives, many of whom run Fortune 500 companies, found that quite a number of them went to “ordinary” schools like Western Illinois University, which just happens to be my alma mater. You ever hear of it? No? Fancy that!
Nor do high grades make the individual. That includes test scores, class rank, or being in honors classes. If they did, all highly successful (by whatever standard) people would come from the top 10 percent of their classes. They don’t. Some were quite ordinary students. A pediatrician friend of mine never made a grand total of two A’s in undergraduate school. Another pediatrician friend of mind dropped out of high school and spent time in the military before getting his G.E.D and then going to college.
And then there are the many stories of people who were high achievers in school, went to top-ranked universities, and never lived up to expectations. I know or know of several such people. One has lived on the public dole most of his life. Another became addicted to gambling, lost his job, lost his family, and dropped out of sight.
In the 14th Century, William of Wykeham penned the motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford: Manners maketh man. An individual’s manners are a reflection of his or her character, so an apt paraphrase of the motto is “It’s all about one’s character!” That’s as true today as it always has been.
The C-student who always does his best and strives to improve is going to go further in life than the A-student who is a slacker. If you’ve ever been to a high school reunion, you’ve seen the proof of that. The person voted most likely to succeed didn’t, and the person who was hardly noticed in high school became a high achiever as an adult. And best of all, he’s a nice guy who supports worthy causes in his community.
As was known seven centuries ago, one’s manners are a reflection of one’s character. Furthermore, it is by learning and practicing social courtesies that a child develops good character. Training in manners teaches a child to pay attention to others and look for opportunities to be of service to them, even in small ways like opening doors and helping carry things.
A life well led is not defined in terms of how much money one makes or one’s title. It is defined by service to others. And service to others equates to humility and modesty, which the world needs a whole lot more of these days.