Several years ago, we enrolled one of our kids in a private commuter school nearby. It was expensive, but his teachers strongly encouraged us to place him where he would be more challenged. This school offered low teacher-to-student ratios and better access to his instructors.
The mission of this school was to emulate a college environment; self-management was essential. No coddling, no hand-holding.
Our son loved this place — the other students, the sports, the instructors, the whole thing. And we loved that our son loved it, until his progress reports showed a downward trend across every subject. We knew he was working below his ability. Not wondered, knew.
We sat him down. There was no disappointment, no anger. We didn’t ask him to start showing us his grades. We didn’t meet with teachers. We said that if he was doing as well as he could, we were okay with it, but that if he wasn’t doing his best, he might consider saving us some money and returning to public school.
“How would you like to handle this?” we asked.
He handled it by using his free time before big exams in hard subjects to see teachers instead of shooting hoops. His study behaviors changed and the reports improved. He didn’t have to skip meals or stay up late, or break down emotionally to do it.
After three decades of parenting, my empty nest is lined with more feathers than sticks. It was the sticks, however, that taught me the best thing I know about parenting: Kids hear and respond to the statements in our questions, more than the questions themselves. Asking them how they will handle an issue suggests that they can own the solution as well as the problem.
Is there a downside to suggesting a level of competence that children may not understand they possess?
“No,” says Lynn Lyons, a Concord, N.H., psychotherapist and co-author of “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children.” “It’s what we want to do. It’s called ‘seeding,’ planting the seed with a suggestion that you have or will soon discover the resources you need to solve a problem.”
“Helpful” questions or comments such as “Let me cut that for you,” or “Do you want me to help you with that?” or “That looks awfully dangerous!” can deliver the opposite message, Lyons says, “and the tricky and very loaded question, ‘Are you sure?’ is anxiety’s calling card and stops kids in their tracks.”
In her book “The Gift of Failure,” educator Jessica Lahey discusses the intrinsic motivation that our kids are born with. “All kids begin life motivated by their own desire to explore, create and build. When babies take their first step, it is because they are driven to discover and master their environment. If there’s any trick to parenting, it is to keep our children from losing that internal drive,” Lahey said.
Here is a stick.
When our four kids were under nine, they attended three different schools. With our 2-year-old in his car seat, I spent much of each afternoon in one pickup line or another. The last thing I wanted to do after settling everyone at home with snacks and drinks was hustle them back into the car to fetch someone’s forgotten item.
Did I know I should let them own the problem? Yes. Did I give them the gift of failure and let them go empty-handed to school the next day? No.
I made a chart, because it was easier. I listed the child’s name at the top, subjects along the side and attached it to a clipboard. Before we left the lot(s), I checked to make sure they “had everything.” For a couple of weeks the clipboard worked. And then the forgetting started again.
Now I’d not only robbed them of the chance to create their own system of remembering, I’d sent the message that they would not be able to handle the fallout. Worse, I’d elevated the seriousness of a simple oversight because now, there was a clipboard.
“Never miss an opportunity to shut up,” a professor of child development once said to us about whisking children away from the mess of their own solutions. And it was messy after I pitched the clipboard. There were frustrated tears over forgotten assignments and unchecked deadlines and suggestions that had I been more careful to remind, they would have been more careful to remember, the rationale that powers overparenting and veils not only the better judgment of parents, but the creative instincts of children.
This culture of excessive parental involvement and reassigning of accountability has grown out of a blend of motivations, including conformity to our own parent-peer pressure. Lyons says, “It is no longer seen as ‘weird’ to go online and track your child’s grades and homework assignments, to know all the details of your college student’s academic schedule, or to attend your child’s practices. Knowing all the details is not so much seen as ‘neurotic parenting’ but as ‘involved’ parenting.”
We are driven, experts say, by the belief that it is a causal relationship between better grades and successful futures. However, says Lahey, “What research has shown over and over again (is that) children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.
Here is another stick.
Despite fixes in my own parenting after the clipboard incident, I relapsed when our youngest applied to college “early decision,” a chaotic process that shortens timelines, frays tempers and kills perspective. Goodbyes loom, and students hug and mourn the end of everything fun while parents push, handle and demand more than is fair of them.
In my house, Post-its that began with “Don’t forget,” and “Reminder!” decorated our son’s closed door like flags of nags. Questions of “Did you …” brought a terse, “I’m aware,” or worse, “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’d like to see your grades,” I said, finally.
“It’s not necessary,” he said, “Don’t worry about it.”
“I do worry about it,” I said, pointing out, “I’m not going to be the only one who cares about your college application.”
I regretted the words before I even finished saying them, but the message — you don’t know how to handle this — made me feel, for a moment, like I didn’t know either one of us.
I apologized, and we went for lunch to clear the air. When we had settled in a booth, he proposed a deal:
Since he knew more than I did about everything he had to do, and everything he worried about, I would let him manage it like I’d said I would, and stop checking on him.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on. The minute you think I’m not handling it,” he said, “you can check anything you want and I won’t say a word.”
Here was the son who watched me err and repair from his car seat, saw me leave that clipboard at home. Here were my learned ways, being handed back to me.
“I can live with that,” I said. Three months later, he was accepted into the college of his choice.
It’s all coming back around, this “seeding” business. Last month, in a conversation with our oldest daughter, I described a choice I had to make between helping a friend with something and meeting a deadline that was important to me.
“And, how will you handle that?” she asked.
I knew I’d help the friend, but for a nice second or two, I knew the sound of my daughter’s future voice, gentle and encouraging, asking a future small child this very question, with the message wrapped inside: Because you deserve to own your solutions, as well as your problems.
Susan Bonifant is an essayist, novelist and mother of four who blogs about life after the last college drop-off at Attic View. She lives with her husband and cat in Hopkinton, N.H. Follow her on Twitter @SusanBonifant.
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