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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. 

Setting Your Kids Free by Teaching Them a Love of Learning

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt      

One of the reasons parents do so much for their children in the areas of self care and daily life is not because they honestly think their children incompetent.  Rather, they are trying to free their children up to spend time on their academics.  While we all understand that a college education is as necessary today as a high school education was in previous generation, it is not the be all and end all.  It is a piece of your child's journey to adulthood, yes, but their success and happiness as an adult will ultimately rest on broader life skills like self-initiative, cooperation and teamwork, creativity and motivation.  And the perhaps most important of all life skills:  A love of learning.  

DEVELOPING A LOVE OF LEARNING

     Children who have a love of learning are naturally motivated.  They go seeking answers on their own.  School becomes a pleasure, not a half to.  If you have a child who loves school, he is willing to play the school game--get there on time, do the homework, memorize seemingly random facts--because he will see all those thingsas a part of his opportunity to do experiments, to reenact the landing of the Pilgrims, to interpret or write a poem.  He will see homework as a way to check his understanding.  He will want to know how he did not just to make a grade but to know where to correct his learning.   

     A love of learning does not thrive in an environment where parents are constantly looking over your shoulder, micromanaging assignments and monitoring grades as if the health of the stock market were tied to your performance.  Or more likely in many homes, as if the success or failure of a research paper in fourth or fifth grade were an indicator of what college a kid is going to get in to.  No.  A love of learning thrives when school is seen as a process--a time and place to fail.  Imagine a skater trying to learn a salchow and not falling down.  Not possible, right?  We know that every fall requires enormous risk and faith.   And from every fall comes a great deal of learning--learning of what not to do, learning about what to try next time.  And the coach knows she cannot go out on the ice and do the salchow for the child.  What would be the point?  Where would the learning be?  Likewise, when we take over our children's learning--by managing them to death--we rob them of any benefit.  

ARE YOU A HELICOPTER PARENT?

     If you have been a helicopter parent when it comes to schoolwork, stop and ask yourself why.  What do you fear?  What are you protecting your child from?  What are you protecting yourself from?  To some extent, I know that parents are just going by what the school or other parents expect. Ironically, many teachers I know would like to give less homework but get pressure from the parents or are accused of being lazy if they don't assign it.  These are not good reasons for homework.  Studies routinely find that the efficacy of doing homework drops off precipitously after around 30 minutes, and in fact, even then the value is in the discipline of remembering you have homework, knowing what the assignment is, doing it and actually getting it back to school and turning it in--not in whatever the homework actually practices.  My own anecdotal experience bares this to be true.  My daughter went to a school where there was no homework before fourth grade and by middle school it was maybe an hour or two a week.  Did this hurt her?  No, she stepped into top classes at a large public high school without missing a beat.  

MAKE THE LEARNING THEIRS

     So how do we motivate our kids to become lifelong learners?  First and foremost, we need to make the learning theirs--the assignments need to be theirs, the grades need to be theirs and the mistakes need to be theirs.   I am reminded of the proverb, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."  Knowledge has no value if you do not put it to use.  You can cram facts into a child's head by sheer route learning, by threatening and bribing, but to what end?  If the child does not have an intrinsic interest, each thing he learns will be in isolation, a box on a checklist to mark completed.  Keep the emphasis on the knowledge and experience gained, on the process, on the lessons and not on the outcome.  

     Good teachers find ways for kids to have ownership over their learning by giving them as much choice and leeway as possible.  Good parents do the same.  Support your child by asking questions.   What help do they think they will need?  How much time will they need to do the assignment?  Will it require back burner energy or front burner concentration to do compared to their other assignments?  When they get the work back, ask your kids if they got what they expected.  If not, why?  What went wrong?  What could they do differently next time?  What will they commit to doing?  What resources are available for help?  Your support comes in the form of supporting their metacognition--their thinking about how they learn and what they'll get out of it.  

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

     I know that some of you are concerned that if you do not push your child academically, you will be failing as a parent--you will be closing the door to the top slots at the top universities.  For you, I offer the perspective of Julie Lythcott-Haims, former freshman dean at Stanford.  Listen here (https://www.freeconferencecall.com/wall/recorded_audio?audioRecordingUrl=https%3A%2F%2Frs0000.freeconferencecall.com%2Fstorage%2FsgetFCC2%2FaQ2s9%2FdpsMH&subscriptionId=4985870) to get my interview with her where she lays out why she is urging stressed-out parents to stop trying so hard to make sure their kids succeed.  

     Perhaps you are reading this and disagreeing strongly.  Perhaps you think I don't understand.  I do get it.  Watching my child go through the stress of getting into college--as grounded and together as she was--was heart wrenching.  Every fear I ever had of how I had failed her boiled up.  I had to firmly squelch my need to push her--to insist--she take actions in certain directions.  I had to trust that with the help of a good college counselor to tell her about a wide variety of schools, she was going to find one that was a good fit for her.  And she did.  And she is thriving, excited about her interactions with her professors and the classes she is taking.  She is at a school most people in California haven't even heard of, and yet I have every confidence she is getting a first rate education.  

     Please put your comments below.  Do you really think having high expectations for our kids and at the same time teaching our kids to take responsibility for their own learning, their own successes and their own failures are not mutually exclusive ideas?  I want to hear from you.