“I’m looking for ideas. My middle school child who is so vibrant and easy going and really cares about priorities is suddenly failing in school. I cannot seem to find a cause. No issues with friends, at home she is fine, and her teachers say she outgoing, no discipline issues, and has plenty of friends. Punishment with taking things away or grounding doesn’t work. I’m looking for suggestions to help her realize the impacts of this and put her priority into school work.”
One of our many roles as parents is to help our children develop internal motivation. And a part of this internal motivation comes from having a sense of significance – some idea that the choices they make influence the direction of their lives. As parents we want them to learn this quickly and with ease. Unfortunately, this is not usually how it happens because many times we allow ourselves to get in the way of their learning. Watching them learn through mistakes is DIFFICULT! An experience that only lasts a month in real time can feel like a year when we’re watching from a place of quiet support. But in the general lay of life and long-term parenting, 1 month or 3 or 5 isn’t so long considering the lifetime lessons those months can hold for children.
Life & Social Skills
In practical terms, this means we have conversations with our kids. Children want to know WHY. Why should she do her homework? And this is a discussion for parents and children to have together, rather than a lecture for parents to give . Using curiosity questions can help guide our discussions to support our children’s learning, rather than to allowing ourselves to get in the way with lectures.
“I notice you’ve stopped doing your homework and I thought we might talk about why it’s important. Can you tell me about what you learn when you do homework?” Then you’ll just need to listen. Don’t correct her, don’t challenge her, don’t try to fix the way she feels about homework. Simply listen. Then ask, “anything else?” And listen, listen, listen again. Then ask, “anything else?” And repeat. Until she’s finished.
Then you can take it deeper, “what happens when you don’t do your homework?” Repeat the entire listening episode again. And “what do you think about those outcomes of not doing your homework?” And listen, listen, listen, again.
The purpose isn’t to displace our concerns onto our children, but rather to have them think through the possible outcomes of their decisions. This is how children develop vital critical thinking skills. She is probably not going to get up and do her homework after this conversation. She may not do it for a week…or even more. But the goal isn’t to coerce her into doing her work. Long term parenting goals are to help children develop the life and social skills they need to live in the world. And this means we provide them with a safe environment where they can make decisions, learn from their mistakes, and try again. It is these very mistakes, the struggles they face in the safety of their home where their parents can support them through fixing those mistakes, where children develop those critical life and social skills they need to be in the world.
However, the amazing thing you and your child will experience together is the continuation of these deep, meaningful, and connecting conversations because she felt heard and valued, rather than judged and criticized. In the meantime, she will experience the outcomes of her choices – this is how we learn; we learn by experiencing the outcome of OUR choices. And the combination of your support, your curiosity questions, your promotion of her critical thinking, and her experiencing of the outcomes of her choices, she will dig deep and make better and better decisions over time. Remember not to shame or blame her when she experiences the outcomes, simply apply the principles of curiosity questions to help her as she navigates the experiences.
More conversations might also include:
What is your plan for learning at school?
What is your plan for completing your work?
What do you need to complete your work?
How can I support you?
How would you like to create you’re own uncluttered work space?
Would it be helpful to plan something before/after your homework
Remember to remain in a place of curiosity. We want to draw their knowledge out and engage them through experience. Because, while we can certainly quote our parents for memory from our own childhoods, most of us also don’t remember heeding the words. We all want to have a sense of significance, we all want to live and experience and make our own choices. This is how we learn. This is how we live.
As a side note, research actually shows that homework does not support the learning process in the ways many of us believe. There is a LOT of research on these outcomes and how it pertains to ACT/SAT scores, grades, and overall physical and mental health. Research shows that the biggest support for learning is actually having unscheduled downtime, where kids can play in whatever creative ways they’d like to play (and it’s important for us to remember that boredom is the gateway to creativity). See Alfie Kohn , John Holt, and Daniel Siegel for more information on homework outcomes, play and the developing brain.