5 not-so-obvious ways kids thrive when we stop “helping”
The start of a new school year always makes our to-do lists grow. So just in time: five things that child development specialists say we can all take off our lists.
And here’s the best part: When we stop doing these five things—stuff we almost all do on parent auto-pilot—we save time, nag less, and (especially!) our kids learn more and become psychologically stronger and happier.
1. STOP: Talking about grades.
Why: Asking, “What’d you get?” after every test is like shouting that we care more about the mark than what they’re learning. Like ‘em or not, grades are a metric by which we make sure kids are keeping up. But giving too much attention to grades sends kids the wrong message about what we truly value.
Other examples: rewarding As, taking away privileges for disappointing report cards, intervening with teachers to challenge grades, and tracking your child’s GPA and class rank.
The reality: Grades don’t matter as much in the long term as developing self-motivation and a love of learning. In fact, researchers who have studied what motivates kids academically say that relaxed time with parents translates to a love of learning more than being hectored to study or signed up for enrichment classes.
How: Take an interest in the schoolwork itself, not the grades, says developmental psychologist Richard Rende, co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World. Have everyday conversations about what was learned that day. Listen for what piqued your kid’s interest: History? Plants? Music? Talk about it –but in a conversational way, not a grilling way: “That’s cool, what did you like about it? Tell me about it.”
Fan those flames with more talks, library books, or relevant outings. Doing this builds a kid’s curiosity and excitement, he says. That’s what ultimately leads to better grades and deeper learning.
2. STOP: Making lunches.
Why: Even a kindergartener can take responsibility for packing his or her own sandwich-and-apple. Seem like a pipe dream? Kids can do plenty of things we mistakenly believe are beyond their age, says parenting coach and educator Jesse McCarthy. When we show them how and let them have at it, they get a huge hit of achievement and pride, he says.
Another benefit: Being responsible for one’s own food is one of the essential life skills kids need to learn before they leave home. It’s also a great way to sidestep arguments over your uneaten selections. And to skip the elaborate bento-box and animal-shaped food trends, if you’re not into that!
How: Store the necessaries where your kid can reach them. Make lunch-making part of the night-before routine if mornings are rushed. Even kindergartners can start by selecting the foods (give healthy choices) and helping you assemble them as they learn the ropes. Gradually, let them take over more; within a few weeks, most can nail it.
3. STOP: Direct messaging the teacher about every question or problem.
Why: A surprising number of kids get all the way to college without knowing how to ask adults for help or stand up for themselves, educators say. Their parents have always snowplowed the path for them, whether it’s an issue with friends or a teacher, or a question about a grade or assignment. They’re deprived of a chance to practice this skill.
Not only do they miss opportunities to gain responsibility and confidence, but we wind up feeding a general sense of entitlement (oh, why bother…Mom or Dad will make it better), says parent educator Amy McCready, author of The Me, Me, Me Epidemic.
How: When your kid comes to you with a school problem, she suggests asking this question: “What can you do?” If you get a blank stare, offer a few suggestions: “What would happen if you…?” But refrain from actually dictating what to do.
Instead, help brainstorm options: Email the teacher? Go up to her desk after class? Role play what your child might say. Acknowledge that everybody feels scared or worried about things, but express confidence that your child can work through it.
Sure, all kids, especially early elementary ages, deserve our advocacy. The goal is to put them on the path to owning more and more of it by letting them sweat the small stuff.
4. STOP: “Saving the day” by delivering forgotten stuff to school.
Why: Dropping off lunch, a book, a coat, or an assignment smooths over stress—for a minute or a day. (Let’s face it, Mom-to-the-Rescue even gives us a little shot of gratification: I’m needed! I’m a hero!). But there’s a steep downside to what educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of Unselfie, calls “always ‘ing-ing’ for kids”: solving, doing, rescuing.
The quick fix only teaches learned helplessness. “This makes it tough for them to learn crucial skills like coping, decision-making, problem-solving, and empathizing,” she says. Micromanagement also sends the undermining message, “I’ll help because I don’t believe you can do it alone.”How: Leave the lunchbox on the counter. Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen? A missed meal won’t starve a kid—but the memory of hunger will prod him into grabbing his lunch bag tomorrow. The cold of a forgotten coat won’t kill her, but her desire for comfort will make her remember it next time. That major paper he sweated over that got left on the backseat? Doesn’t matter how many points it’s worth; he won’t make the same mistake if he gets a bad grade as a result.
What’s key: Let the natural consequences, however unhappy, leave the bigger lesson. Even if they forget several times, they’ll live.
Two of my four kids had ignore-their-alarm, morning-dawdling problems. On different years, each missed his and her carpool to high school. I made them walk the 1.5 miles and arrive late. For each of them, once was enough; they never overslept again.
Why: The more parents feel responsible for being involved in homework, the less kids own it themselves, research shows. “Too many of us are too involved in homework, sometimes going so far as to correct it, rewrite it, or outright do it ourselves,” says former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult.
How: Starting on Back to School Night or Meet the Teacher Night (or whatever they call it in your district), try this: Just listen. Ignore all the other furiously scribbling parents around you, and don’t take copious notes. Don’t input all the tests and due dates from the syllabus into your Google calendar. Don’t copy assignments from the board.
You don’t have to. That’s the student’s job.
Our role: resource and guide, a place our kids can turn for questions or feedback. Even then…you don’t have to actually buckle down and re-learn the material alongside your child in order to help, or double-check all the answers before your child turns in the worksheet.
I haven’t been able to work a kid’s math problem since first grade. But I’m good at encouraging persistence and reminding them to ask the teacher for extra help (an important self-advocacy skill). Lythcott-Haims says she’s dialed back on her own involvement in her two kids’ homework “from an 8 all the way down to a 2.”
Do more of the stuff you love.
While you’re not doing all the unnecessary stuff, do this: Remind yourself of summer’s best moments, and hang onto them during the crazies of the school year. Keep a jar of seashells from your beach vacay on the table. Post some camping candids on your refrigerator door.
When you glance at them, remember the silly stuff you did. The talking and laughing. Watching an old fave movie with popcorn. Reading bedtime stories. Unwinding. All that’s truly crucial stuff for our kids’ development and school success—more than a lot of the stuff we get sucked into thinking is important.