Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book Review: A “Fail-Safe” Method for School Success

During a back-to-school night at our local elementary school, we visited our daughter’s fourth-grade classroom. There, along with our daughter’s classmates’ parents, we learned from her teacher what she would be doing in fourth grade that year.

The teacher started off her presentation by having us participate in a game she did some mornings to get her pupils engaged in learning about each other. The teacher would say a fact, and those to whom the same fact applied, would stand up. She started with, “I have a child in fourth grade,” and everyone stood up and replied, “Just like me.”

She gave a few more statements before she said, “I help my child with homework,” to which every single parent stood up—except for us. Of course, all eyes swiveled around to see who the miscreants were who didn’t—gasp!—help their child with homework. It was a moment of clarity that showed just how we as parents have bought into the notion that helping our children with homework was a necessary part of their schooling experience.

But, as John Rosemond points out in his new book, John Rosemond’s Fail-Safe Formula For Helping Your Child Succeed in School, exactly who is that helping? The conclusion Rosemond draws is that it isn’t the child.

He rightly points out that one underlying problem has infused all school-related troubles with an extra coating of confusion: “The average, middle-class American mom takes pretty much for granted that if her child fails to measure up to one standard or another—whether behavioral, social, or academic—that shortcoming is in some way indicative of a failing or inadequacy on her part” (emphasis his). Rosemond doesn’t belabor this point, one he’s made in other, more general parenting books, but it does bear repeating in this guidebook on school troubles, given that many times, our actions as parents compound the problem our children are having with schoolwork.

His chapter on homework is especially worth the price of the book, as he strips away the veneer of why we think homework is important (grades!) to reveal what he deems the Seven Hidden Values of Homework: Responsibility, autonomy, perseverance, time management, initiative, self-reliance and resourcefulness. Who know a simple math worksheet could accomplish so much?

The key to uncovering these values—and allowing our children to reap the full benefits of those values—is to empower our children to do their homework entirely on their own, with minimal (read: hardly any) assistance from parents.

Lest you think the book is all about homework, it isn’t. Rosemond tackles other school troubles, including how to correct school performance and classroom behaviors and why retention can be a good thing. Also helpful is the question-and-answer sections in each chapter that provide real-life examples and solutions.

Overall, this is a welcome update to his earlier Ending the Homework Hassle. However, I would caution that this isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re serious about helping your child recover his own responsibility in the area of school, then Rosemond’s suggestions will provide a blueprint for accomplishing that. If you’re not, then you might be more alarmed than comforted by the no-nonsense and practical advice contained within these pages.

Personally, I hope more parents would find the courage to follow Rosemond’s advice and give the school work back to the child. After all, full ownership of a thing—be it homework or behavior—is the best way that a child learns to be resilient, self-confident and resourceful.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Loving the Unrepentant Child

Q: What do we do when our child refuses to be reconciled with you? In adult-to-adult relationships, each adult has the same responsibility to initiate reconciliation when conflict arises. But how does this apply to the parent-child relationship? For example, my teenage son has cursed at me, been outright rebellious, and has threatened to leave the house. Should the parent in such a situation take the initiative toward reconciliation, such as telling him I still love him despite his over-the-top misbehavior? Or do we wait for the child to humble himself and come to us?

A: This is a question as old as time itself. How do we as parents deal with a child who clearly has no desire to repair a relationship to which he has taken a sledge hammer?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
Let’s remember that the parent-child relationship is fraught with mistakes and outright messiness. The parent makes mistakes, the child makes mistakes. Emotions get out of control and things can slide downhill fast.

That said, we should try to model forgiveness and love as much as we can. That means, yes, we tell our children that we love them no matter what they do--because we do and we should. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t get annoyed, hurt, angered, or saddened by their behavior and choices, but it does mean that we love them as unconditionally as we can in our imperfect human state.

In your example, you should take the initiative for two reasons. One because you’re the adult and he’s the child (even as he nears adulthood), and two, because you’re his father. This isn’t to say you condone the behavior, but we have to be the ones to hold out the olive branch of forgiveness in order to make it easier for our children to ask for it. We should be the ones who try to heal the breach first because we need to show our children how to do that.

Most of the time, children of all ages find it difficult to be the one to take the first step toward righting a wrong. It’s not easily to be humble and apologetic in the best of circumstances. Throw in a fight with a parent, and that step could morph into an insurmountable mountain for a child to climb.

Of course, we pray that our children will see the wrongness of their actions, but in the end, it’s not up to us to convict their hearts—that’s the province of God--so we tell them we love them, we levy appropriate consequences when necessary, and we make the way back “home” not steep or rocky, but paved with love and forgiveness. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Squelching the Wonder

Do we allow children time to find the magic in their surroundings or are we too impatient to move on to the next thing?

I hurried my kids along, tugging on their hands and urging them to keep up. We had a lot of road to travel and not enough daylight to do it in. No matter that the youngest two (both boys) wanted to stop to see the construction vehicles moving dirt at a worksite. No matter that the two oldest (both girls) wanted to gaze at a new flower bursting out of a sidewalk crack. We had things to do, places to go, people to see, and it all had to be done right this very minute.

Image courtesy of sritangphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The sad part is the above scenario wasn’t uncommon in my life. Like many of us, I packed as much into one day as possible, leaving little wiggle room for stopping to smell the roses or see the first robin of spring.

I took little comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone. Many of us have bought into the notion that to be idle is to be unproductive. We can’t stand to have a “free” moment, so we over-pack our schedules and we stress ourselves to the max by constantly doing, doing, doing. Busyness has become a status symbol. Always rushing around from one task to another. Constantly busy. On the job 24/7. As Americans, we’re busier than ever, filling our lives with constant motion and tasks to be accomplished.

We don’t just do that for ourselves—we do that for our children too. Then everyone ends up all feeling so overwhelmed by our lengthy and never-ending to-do lists. We’ve fallen into the trap of over-scheduling, over-doing and over-committing our time and resources.

And in the midst of our extreme busyness, we forget that to be constantly busy means more than having no free time. It also means we pass through life as if on a fast train, everything outside of our small world a blur without form.

When we suck our children into our busyness, we do more than slash their playtime. We also severely limit their imaginations. In short, being overly busy with little downtime squelches the wonder.

The wonder to take a few minutes to watch the worm wiggle across the sidewalk. The wonder to watch the giant excavator scoop up a load of dirt and drop it into a dump truck. The wonder to gaze at the puffy clouds and see a unicorn or dragon. The wonder to lay back on the warm grass and trace the contrail streams left by airplanes high in the sky. The wonder to let a mind drift into that magical realm of what-if that allows children—and adults—to dream the dreams that sometimes change the world.

I’m thankful I realized sooner rather than later that my hurrying to the next thing wasn’t always in the best interest of myself or my children. Now, while some weeks are more packed than others, I deliberately try to work in extra time on a regular basis so that when opportunities arise that demand a moment of exploration or investigation, we can take that time. My kids won’t always want to examine a tree’s peeling bark or gaze at an interesting display in a store window, so while they still do, I will try to help them take advantage of the situation.

Until next time,

Thursday, January 29, 2015

For the Love of TV

Q: We introduced our three-year-old daughter to television at an early age. We put limits on viewing time—currently, 30 minutes to an hour per day of something educational. However, she loves, loves, loves TV and prefers watching it to anything else. Is this okay? Should we wean her off of it, and if so, how?

A: Of course she loves it! What's better than doing nothing and being “entertained” by flashing lights and quick-changing scenes? I would pull the plug entirely right now, no exceptions, for at least six months. There are so many other things she could be doing that is more beneficial to her growing brain than staring at a screen, no matter how educational the programming.

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But she will complain, and whine and beg and plead and throw temper tantrums when you do (I’m sure this has already happened when you limit her exposure). This will pass in a few days if you stick with it--and DON’T replace TV screen time with electronic screen time of another sort (such as computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Kick the entire screen habit cold turkey with her.

Just simply tell her no TV and provide alternatives, such as building blocks and cars and trucks, trains and tracks, stuffed animals, etc. Any toy that doesn’t make it’s own noise is key--you want your daughter to provide the “entertainment” value for the toys, not the other way around. You will probably have to teach her how to play and expect a short attention span to begin with--but with calm purpose, you can help her recover her natural ability to entertain herself without electronics.

To give her a push in jumpstarting her imagination, build a town for her dolls out of building blocks, talking about what you’re doing, as in “Let’s make it big enough for Dolly to live in. Do you think she needs space to take a rest?” Let her guide the play and redirect the building. After about five minutes or so, she should be more engaged and then you can just sit there and let her do the playing. With stuffed animals, you can start a conversation between the owl and the lion about what to do that day. Ask your daughter what you think they should do, then do different voices for the animals. She'll probably start making sounds or voices herself with those or other animals.

In all activities, start the play, but then step aside and become a passive observer as your daughter takes over. As the hold TV/screens has had on her lessens, her brain will start to fire up on its own with imaginative play.

For more on how screen time, even “educational” programs, games, etc., re-wire children's brains, check out The Shallows by Nicholas Carr or The Big Disconnect by Teresa Barker and Catherine Steiner-Adair.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Irony of Homework

Like it (parents) or not (students), homework has become an ingrained part of the school landscape. At its very basic level, homework reinforces what students are learning in class and gives teachers a quick check to see if their pupils understand the material.

While homework has been around since the introduction of public schooling in America, the homework of the early 20th century looks much different from the homework of the 21st century—and I’m not talking about the actual worksheets and problems, although that has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts as well.

What has changed is the fundamental understanding of homework. It used to be understood by all—teachers, parents, pupils—that homework was the sole responsibility and domain of students to whom it was assigned. Nowadays, homework involves not only the student but his parents as well—all with the full support and encouragement of teachers.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
For one of many examples I could cite from our children’s teachers at the local public elementary school (and let me state that we think the teachers are doing a bang-up job teaching our kids overall), take a look at this recent note from my second grader’s teacher:

“Some students are still not writing down the books they read at home or having a parent sign their planner. This is part of their homework, so please help your child remember to do this every night.”

Now read it again and see if you can catch the irony in that simple request from teacher to parents. Here’s the words and phrases that jumped out at me: their homework, that is, the students’ work. Then, please help your child remember, that is, the parents need to help their child remember the child’s homework.

Let’s return to the matter of whose homework is it: The child’s, of course. So why does the teacher request that the parents get involved with helping the student do his own homework? If the child is supposed to be learning to be responsible for his own homework—which is the goal of this entire planner thing, in which the kids write down their homework each day—then how is a parent reminding the child going to help the child learn that responsibility?

The short answer is that it’s not. And the more we as parents “help” our children “remember” their own homework, the more our children will “forget” to do the work (or even how to do the work). I guarantee that every parent who reminds their second grader to write down the book they read and to bring the planner to a parent for a signature will still be reminding that same child until the end of the school year. That kind of “help” is not going to make our kids progress to the point where they don’t need our assistance.

In other words, if we don’t put the onus of remembering homework in the first place and if we don’t allow our children to turn in incomplete work or imperfect work, we are essentially creating an dependence on others for work that by its very definition should be completed, alone, by the child. If the child really doesn’t understand the material, then the teacher needs to know that. If the child can’t “remember” to have a planner signed by a parent, then the teacher needs to know that too—and grade accordingly.

Our second grader has a rather spotty record on the planner signing and book title writing down in planner. We knew that teacher’s note was talking about our second grader (and probably others in the class as well). However, we simply said only, “Your teacher said you are not writing down the book titles and having us sign your planner.” That’s it. We didn’t remind the second grader every day to do this. We didn’t hound the second grader to get this down. We put the responsibility firmly in his hands and let him sink or swim on his own. He has improved his performance in this area, which wouldn’t have been the case had we gotten involved and started shouldering the responsibility for his planner.

How do you handle homework—and is that way working for you and your kids?

Until next time,

Content Sarah Hamaker
Photo of Sarah, Copyright Donna Hamaker
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