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Parenting Advice #3.1 January 5, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Love, Parenting/Children.
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As a follow-up to #3, there is at least one conflict that gets complicated: grades. I see school, and academic learning, as being much like learning to walk or ride a bike. In learning those skills, negative feedback (from falling) is a great motivator. That feedback establishes the boundaries for us, and helps us understand what behavior is necessary to avoid that negative consequence (thank you, Captain Obvious). If a child receives a bad grade, look at it as you would them falling when they learn to walk.

When a child is a toddler, you’d much prefer for them to fall in the house, onto carpet, and never get hurt, but my experience is that they learn much quicker when the feedback is more direct–wood floors. Obviously, we want to make sure that the child doesn’t fall down the stairs, or a great enough distance that they hurt themselves. As a result, we monitor where they go, we chuckle and wince a bit when they do fall (with the resulting tears of surprise and shock, if not pain), and we help them get back up, steadying them for a few moments and then letting go again.

What if we never let go of their hands? They probably would never fall, but they’ll not know how to walk unassisted either. This brings me to a point of philosophy:

My job, as a parent, is to make myself unnecessary.

This is an unpopular perspective, but it’s how I truly feel. It may require a bit of explanation.

I am not saying that I don’t want my sons to interact with me, or come to me for advice. As a human being, this makes me feel wanted and needed, and fills me up emotionally. However, if my sons are still calling me daily for advice when they’re 40, I have done them a disservice. Likewise, I need to find ways for them to experience learning without me hovering over them, holding their hand with every step.

For this reason, my first reaction to a bad grade is not to question the teacher’s competence, or that of the administration. My first reaction is to help my child deal with the emotional impact of the negative feedback, and then help them stabilize to take the next steps. In this analogy, the bad grade is a hardwood floor. Me attacking the teacher or administration is like seeing my child starting to fall, and tossing soft pillows in front of them before they get hurt.

Amazingly, some of the parents who subvert the educational process this way are big proponents of strong discipline. They don’t seem to realize that subverting the educational process this way is no different than subverting the authority of your spouse that just disciplined the child. It sends the child a mixed message, and blurs the edge that negative feedback should have.

Life is tough. If you run out of gas, does your Mom or Dad appear from the sky and say, “Well, you should have put more gas in the car, but I’ll take care of it this time”? Even more ridiculous, do your parents see you out of gas and begin attacking the car manufacturer for the car’s poor mileage, or the gasoline company for high prices? No. When we run out of gas, we have to go through the pain of getting there by some other means, and it’s generally embarrassing. As a result, most people don’t run out of gas twice.

So let your child make a bad grade. Maybe the teacher isn’t going to win “Teacher of the Year” in your school system, but if your child figures out what they have to change in order to get a better grade, the lesson they’ve learned there will pay dividends long after they’ve forgotten how to solve for simultaneous equations in terms of two unknowns.

Life has many more unknowns that that.

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